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Plant City company brings automation to agriculture

Margie Manning

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Harvest Croo executive team (from left): Bob Pitzer, co-founder and CTO; Joe McGee, executive chairman and CEO; Gary Wishnatzki, co-founder and managing partner

Some of the most cutting-edge technology work in the Tampa-St. Pete area is taking place in farm fields in Plant City.

Harvest CROO Robotics is developing strawberry-picking robots that use autonomous vehicles, GPS, LIDAR and optics, among other technologies.

After several years in development, Harvest CROO expects to prove the commercial viability of its automated devices this season, said Gary Wishnatzki, co-founder and managing partner.

A lot is riding on the initiative, Wishnatzki said at last week’s Florida-Israel Business Accelerator Connection to Innovation.

“I can tell you that picking strawberries and other tough, physically taxing jobs aren’t going to get done in the future if we don’t automate. If we don’t, fruits and vegetables won’t be readily available to consumers in the future,” Wishnatzki said.

Harvest CROO’s robotic strawberry picker can lower the cost of harvesting the fruit, he said. Because it can operate on a 24-hour basis, including nights when the temperature drops, the fruit won’t bruise as easily and less energy is needed to cool it once picked. The technology could help farmers more precisely target which parts of their fields need treatments for disease and pests, while artificial intelligence could improve the accuracy in production forecasts.

FIBA highlighted Harvest CROO and other agtech initiatives at its Oct. 29 event because Israeli companies are tackling similar food production challenges, said Rachel Feinman, executive director of the Tampa business accelerator.

Worker shortage

Wishnatzki is a third-generation farmer and CEO of Wish Farms, a year-round supplier of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries throughout North America and South America.

Strawberry picking is hard, back-breaking work, said Wishnatzki, who started in the family business in 1974 and began seeing labor shortages about 15 years ago, as fewer crews came from Mexico. Demographics account for much of the change. The average family in Mexico had 6.7 children in the 1960s. That dropped to 2.9 children by 1995, Wishnatzki said.

“Before the early 2000s there was plenty of labor, but in the early 2000s we started to see less people showing up and it was very noticeable by the mid to late 2000s,” Wishnatzki said. “Some people wonder if we are putting people out of jobs. My answer to that is they aren’t showing up anymore.”

Labor issues — including finding employees, managing the workforce and dealing with government regulations —  are a major concern for his fellow farmers as well, Wishnatzki said. That’s why he adopted the tagline, “making farming fun again” for Harvest CROO.

Business model

Harvest CROO launched in 2013, and was awarded a patent in 2016 for a key technology, the Pitzer Wheel, named after Harvest CROO’s co-founder and chief technology officer Bob Pitzer. In 2017, the company introduced an autonomous vehicle and developed software and hardware tools, including the vehicle’s GPS navigation system, LIDAR technology, and other camera and sensor features.

Joe McGee, a retired executive vice president at Jabil (NYSE: JBL) in St. Petersburg, joined Harvest CROO as executive chairman and CEO in January to help get the company to the next stage of development.

The company currently has a private placement offering underway, which it expects to close in December, McGee said. “Depending on the trials that happen in December, we will probably go back out again for funding,” he said.

He declined to say how much Harvest CROO has raised to date. Crunchbase says the company has raised $3 million in funding over three rounds, while The Washington Post said in a February profile that Harvest CROO has raised $9 million. Companies representing about 70 percent of the U.S. strawberry industry have backed Harvest CROO, Wishnatzki said.

“They invested for one reason. They want the technology to be able to pick berries,” Wishnatzki said.

Another investor is Sonoco (NYSE: SON), which is developing the packaging for the strawberries picked by the robotic harvester.

Harvest CROO also collaborates with University of South Florida and University of Florida. Several USF and UF professors are on the company’s advisory board. Many students have done internships with Harvest CROO, some of them staying on as full-time engineers.

Wishnatzki described the company’s business model as “harvesting as a service.”

“We will maintain the machines and keep them running,” he said. “It works on a lot of different levels. It’s good for growers because they don’t have a large capital investment. We’ll be there to service the equipment and we’ll have control of the technology and not have it shipped off to China to be copied.”

The current version of the Harvest CROO robot is like an early cell phone used primarily to make calls, before anyone imagined the capabilities of a smart phone, Wishnatzki said. The robotic platform potentially has many other agricultural uses.

“Growers today want to make the phone call. They want to get their berries picked,” he said. “We’ve thought about some of the things this platform will lend itself to and how we will be able to utilize this technology in different ways, but we haven’t fully wrapped our heads around it.”

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