Asparagus growers Geoff Lewis and Cam Lewis of Tendertips in Levin (L to R)

Labour challenges could be a thing of the past for the asparagus industry thanks to a robotic harvester project supported by the Government.

The New Zealand Asparagus Council (NZAC) and Tauranga-based Robotics Plus will work with New Zealand asparagus growers to develop a world-first commercial-scale autonomous robotic asparagus harvester to address labour shortages and allow growers to tap into high-value export markets.

A contribution of $2.6 million from the Government Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund will go towards the $5.83 million project.

Mangaweka asparagus grower and NZAC Chair, Sam Rainey says they are keen to get this project underway as the industry is struggling to find enough workers.

“Robotic harvesting will be a game-changer for the asparagus industry that currently relies heavily on picking asparagus by hand, which is hard toil. An average picker will walk 10 kilometres per day, so it’s extremely difficult to attract people to do the work.”

Asparagus grower Geoff Lewis of Tendertips says advancing the project to a commercially available asparagus harvester will help increase grower returns and exports.

“However, it’s not just the picking that is important; it’s all the other aspects this technology can bring to the industry, such as yield data and potential add-ons such as packing and even weeding!”

CEO of Robotics Plus, Steve Saunders, says an autonomous asparagus harvester will alleviate labour constraints, reduce and stabilise costs, and allow New Zealand asparagus to have a more competitive offering in high-value export markets.

“We’re excited to be working with growers and the New Zealand Asparagus Council to ensure we develop a solution that tackles challenges head-on and creates a better future for the asparagus industry. It’s an ideal robotics project as green asparagus is conducive to automation as it grows above ground. In addition, it replaces a physically arduous job that only has a brief employment window that growers struggle to attract harvesting labour for,” he says.