For 37 years, Bob Erickson has worked with Foothill Packing, headquartered in Salinas, Calif. The company provides grower support services, including lettuce thinning, in vegetables and other crops in California and Arizona.

Erickson sees firsthand the reduction in his available workforce which has grown worse in recent years. Today, Foothill Packing can only hire 75 percent of its needed work force for lettuce thinning.

“The workforce just isn’t there,” Erickson said. “The lack of farm labor is forcing a marriage between technology and agriculture.”

Several years ago, Foothill Packing jumped feet first into the realm of automated lettuce thinning. Foothill fronted the financial costs to help Oraka Developments Ltd. of Cambridge, New Zealand design an automated thinner.

Oraka had developed a successful automated asparagus harvester. About 80 Oraka asparagus machines are in operation worldwide.

Once built, Foothill tested prototypes of Oraka’s “Self Propelled Automatic Lettuce Thinner” in customers’ fields to work out the kinks. The equipment has thinned several thousand acres of lettuce.

“We went through many renditions of prototypes and methods,” Erickson told Western Farm Press. “Today, the machine is doing what we want it to do.”

Foothill Packing owns six Oraka self-propelled lettuce thinners. The Oraka thinner is manufactured by Ramsey Highlander in Gonzales, Calif.

Before the thinner, Erickson pegged his traditional lettuce hand-thinning lettuce costs at $90-$100 per acre. The Oraka thinner cost Erickson about $70 per acre to operate.