A new generation of agricultural equipment promises to take more of the toil out of farming by automating the business of growing fruit

In the early 1830s, spurred on by his hatred of sweaty field work, Cyrus McCormick took an idea his father had been working on at the family farm in Virginia and produced a mechanical reaper. Others devised similar machines. Despite initial skepticism, farmers eventually bought them in droves. With one person riding the horse that pulled the reaper, and another raking the cut stalks off the back, the machines could harvest as much grain in a day as a dozen men breaking their backs with reaping hooks.

Mechanical reapers became even more efficient after being adapted to bale the stalks into sheaves, too. Development continued: today a driver in the air-conditioned cabin of a combine harvester may be guided by satellites as he cuts, threshes and pours clean grain into a fleet of accompanying trailers.

One machine, the New Holland CR9090, holds the record after harvesting a colossal 551 tons of wheat in just eight hours from a farm in Britain in 2008. Given that such machines cost around Ј350,000 ($580,000), agricultural automation must make economic sense - because farmers don’t spend money on frivolities.

But there are farms where people like McCormick still dream of taking hard, manual work out of agriculture. These farms grow crops that mostly have to be tended and picked by hand, such as apples, oranges, and strawberries. In rich countries it is becoming increasingly difficult to find people to do this at wages farmers say they can afford. Even Japan’s exquisite and expensive strawberries are becoming too costly to pick because of a shortage of workers, in part caused by an ageing population.

Just as the mechanical reaper transformed the economics of cereal farming, a new wave of agricultural automation promises to do the same in other areas of horticulture. Because picking apples is very different to plucking strawberries, the machines are taking various forms. Some have giant mechanical arms and are towed behind tractors through orchards and vineyards. Some are fully autonomous and able to scurry around on their own, even in paddy fields, like the robotic rice-planter developed by Japan’s National Agricultural Research Centre. Others trundle about inside experimental greenhouses.



The Economist

Read the article again carefully and work out the questions to the given answers.

a) In the early 1830s.

b) After being adapted.

c) 551 tons.

d) Ј350,000.

e) Because picking apples is very different to plucking strawberries.

f) By Japan’s National Agricultural Research Centre.


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