All lettuce used to be harvested by hand, but now growers all over the world are looking for less labour-intensive solutions. With labour scarcity and higher costs associated manual harvesting both on the increase, it’s high time for new varieties that can be harvested by machine.
Salinas Valley in the US is known for its high lettuce production. “The American fresh food industry is very dependent on agricultural labourers. Maize, cotton, rice, soya bean, and wheat production is largely mechanised, but many high-quality, labour-intensive crops, such as lettuce, still need labourers,” explains Jean Francois Thomin, Manager Marketing & Sales North America. Times are changing. “Fewer immigrants are arriving in the US to take on agricultural jobs. Agricultural labourers are also becoming older. At the start of this century, around a third of agricultural labourers was older than 35. Now it’s over half. This development places immense pressure on growers to find innovative solutions.”
“And that doesn’t only apply to America. Add to this the global ageing of the farming population, and it becomes clear that it is only a matter of time before we can no longer cope without new, advanced technologies,” states Jochem Koopman, Portfolio Manager. If we look at scale-up in the industry, these technologies offer a wealth of opportunities. Because it’s not only harvesting that can be done mechanically, planting and combatting disease also don’t need to be done manually. Also, the bigger the plot, the more options there are.
So far it’s mainly lettuce with loose leaves, such as babyleaf and Eazyleaf® that farmers harvest mechanically, but global developments concerning labour have increased the demand for mechanical harvesting of heads of lettuce. Koopman: “Iceberg lettuce and Romaine are the most important types of lettuce for this development, and this involves mainly the lettuce intended for the processing industry. However, mechanical harvesting of a head of lettuce requires different properties in a variety than manual harvesting.
Koopman: “And that’s why at Enza Zaden we’re keeping a keen eye on technological developments. Of course, we maintain close contact with our customers and discuss their needs and wishes. The decision of whether or not to invest in mechanical harvesting varies per company and depends - among other factors - on the business strategy. We have noticed in recent years that increasing numbers of companies are looking at different types of products to make the harvesting process less labour-intensive. Our breeders are working on this and are developing new varieties that meet these new demands.”