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The Lettuce Bot developed by Blue River Technology of Mountain View creates space between romaine plants while working a Castroville field.

Photo: Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle

Willy Pell (center) and colleagues inspect the Lettuce Bot's progress as it selectively sprays fertilizer to create space between plants in a Castroville romaine field.

Photo: Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle

Tractor driver Greg McCready pulls the Lettuce Bot while processing a field in Castroville. A computer shows the position of the 2-week-old romaine lettuce plants under the machine.

Photo: Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle

Willy Pell (left), Jim Ostrowski and Matt Rossow discuss the performance of Blue River Technology's Lettuce Bot.

Photo: Michael Macor, San Francisco Chronicle

Ted Batkin knows there might not be enough workers this year to pick California's signature orange crop due to an ongoing shortage of migrant farm laborers.

That's why he's working on a robot.

It will have arms, hands and even eyes, and do the harvesting work of four to eight people, depending on its speed. Besides citrus, the robot - it still doesn't have an official name - can be used for apples, pears, peaches and other stone fruit.

The citrus robot is just one of the new technological advances that farmers and ranchers are using to become more efficient and sustainable as they are challenged with a shrinking labor force.

Of the 1.2 million people employed in agriculture-related jobs in the United States, an estimated 70 percent are undocumented. But that number is dwindling. Last year, California growers had to scrounge, borrow and beg to get their crops picked on time as fewer seasonal workers made the trek across the border. For many it's become too dangerous, with border crackdowns and the potential violence involved in being smuggled into the United States from Mexico.

But even as lawmakers try to reform immigration, there are other reasons why migrant workers have stopped coming to California to help with the planting, pruning and harvest. The Mexican population is aging and its workforce is more educated and able to get less strenuous work for higher wages, say demographers and economists tracking the flow of migration and its effects on the agriculture industry.

A report released last year by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that only 375, 000 people left Mexico from November 2010 to November 2011 (the most recent numbers), compared with 1.05 million five years earlier.

Demographic changes

"I believe we've bottomed out, " said Jeff Passel, a senior demographer for the nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research firm. "The number of young people in Mexico reaching labor force age is decreasing. The rate of Mexican women having babies dropped in the late 1960s and by the mid '90s there was a drop in births. By 2000, the average woman was having 2.4 babies, down from seven children."

California farmers are scrambling to make up the loss with technology. In the past, researchers and engineers have seen their innovations delayed by industry crises and redeployed resources, Batkin said. The citrus harvester has been in the works for nine years.

Two years away

"This time, economists are warning us that the labor crunch could get worse, so we're putting the band back together, " he said, adding that they are now working on the harvester in earnest and are two years from getting the robot in the field.

Batkin estimates that the price for the harvester will be $300, 000, but the cost will likely come down with demand. Three companies, including the San Diego software firm Vision Robotics, are involved in developing the technology and Batkin says they are looking for a fourth.

The machine is self-propelled through rows of orchards, and uses cameras and four arms and legs on each side of the harvester to pick the trees clean of fruit. But the machine must cut the stem at the base of the fruit before placing it in a bin so the stems won't damage the other fruit.

Machines work after dark

The typical pay for a live picker is $20 for a half-ton bin of oranges, Batkin said, although the rate can go up during labor shortages. Based on amortization, the harvester can pick that same bin for roughly a dollar less, he said. And unlike humans, the harvester can work in the dark, which is important since picking starts after fruit dries from the morning dew.

Batkin said the next phase of harvesting machines includes mechanical fingers that could pick delicate market-ready fruit such as strawberries, cherries and table olives. But that's still in the future. Olive picking for oil already has gone to automated harvesting on many farms, and the processed tomato industry has been using automated equipment for years.

Lettuce Bot on board

Lettuce growers are already taking advantage of new innovations that will enable them to use fewer field workers.

Mountain View's Blue River Technology has a robot that can thin lettuce fields 20 to 40 times faster than a person, said co-founder Jorge Heraud. The 12-foot-wide, 8-foot-long Lettuce Bot hooks behind a tractor and uses cameras to identify plants that haven't properly germinated - a time-consuming, back-breaking job normally done by hand.

"Typically it takes 25 people a whole day to thin a 15-acre field, " Heraud said. "We can do it in one to two hours."

Heraud and his partner, Lee Redden, began developing the Lettuce Bot in 2011 while attending Stanford University, and they have since found investors for their startup. Instead of selling the machine, Heraud and Redden provide the service. Since lettuce is a year-round crop, business is good.

"It's still pretty technical, and we can troubleshoot as we go, " Heraud said.

The cost is comparable to hand labor, he said. "But now the growers are saving their workforce to do the harvesting, whereas before they had to split them up to do both."

Drones from UC Davis

At UC Davis, agricultural engineering professors are also making technological strides that will ultimately reduce a need for laborers. One of the most significant is a drone, which can do anything from herding cattle to spraying chemicals.

"Anything that's boring, repetitive and dangerous: Get a drone, " said UC Davis' Ken Giles, who has been working with his team on a 200-pound helicopter that can fly over fields and hillside vineyards where tractors can't go to apply pesticides.

But soon there will be camera-fitted drones small enough to fit in a person's hand that can be bought for a few thousand dollars and sent up by a farmer to check a crop's health, monitor irrigation and even find a wayward cow, Giles said. With three or four small-scale drones, a rancher can herd livestock, especially in rugged areas that's difficult to get to by vehicle or horseback.

Still experimental

"It's going to put the border collie out of business, " Giles said. "As far as the cowboy, he's got his hands full anyway."

The drones are still in the experimental phase and can only be tested in U.S. skies by public agencies with authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration. Giles doesn't expect the government to give its approval for commercial use until 2015.

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