When hearing the name Karls, one can think of many things, over 400 stands selling strawberries, adventure villages where children and adults can marvel at the preparation of jam, or strawberry fields that extend over several hundred hectares of land. At Karls, several thousand tons of the red fruit is harvested each year.
Organifarms spoke with Axel Stelter. He is responsible for the acquisition of new technologies at Karls. So he looks at new robotics and cropping systems, methods, and technologies and evaluates their potential applications.
Axel, your job is to evaluate new methods and technologies in strawberry cultivation and, if necessary, to establish them at your company. Why is that necessary?
The past two years, in particular, have shown us where the weaknesses of the current system lie in strawberry cultivation and especially in harvesting. The corona pandemic has made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to bring harvest workers to Germany. Then there was the war in Ukraine, which has also ensured that fewer workers are coming.
At Karls, we realized that we could act as a kind of incubator that supports young companies in advancing their technologies and testing the application with us. We see that as a great opportunity.
Karls is Germany's largest grower of strawberries. Every year, several thousand tons are being harvested. © Karls Markt OHG
So will there be no more harvest workers in the near future?
Our aim is not to replace people. Rather, new technologies are supplements. They often do the less attractive tasks. It can be much more attractive to give a person the job of monitoring four harvesting robots on a computer than to suggest that they do the harvesting themselves.
Could this also open doors for local skilled workers?
Sure, that's also a benefit of technologization. We realize that regional cultivation offers many advantages, especially in a crisis context. To make local cultivation profitable and ethical, technologies like harvesting robots or vertical farming are a great opportunity!
So better working conditions are created because the jobs are different?
Often, yes. In such areas, it is usually the case that the work is less physically demanding, for example, and is also better paid due to higher qualification requirements.
New cultivation methods can help ensure that strawberries are available for longer in the year. So will we need more harvesters in the future rather than fewer as a result of technology?
That is not the goal - rather, there is a general attempt to equalize the peak phase of natural strawberry ripeness, to harvest more evenly over the year, and to do so for longer. This is helpful for the deployment of personnel and tasks related to it, such as the planning of housing.
What are already visible successes of modernization and technologization in strawberry harvesting?
Especially the cultivation in tabletop systems is advantageous here. The workers no longer have to pick on the ground, but at a height of about 1.40 m while standing, which is much more pleasant.
But the cultivation method doesn't have much to do with high-tech, and yet it represents a major leap forward in cultivation and the quality of work. And such modifications often offer starting points for technologies - such as harvesting robots, for example.
What is it about strawberries that fascinates people so much? Your concept is based on precisely this enthusiasm.
The strawberry is incredibly diverse and something that many people can agree on. Strawberries are much liked, they look appealing, and they're not available all year round - which is precisely why many people associate them with summer. The strawberry simply transports a sunny feeling. We are constantly working to improve the strawberries so that this feeling remains and so that production can be positively associated with them.
You also have fields where strawberries can be picked yourself - as an experience. Would something like that also be done by machines?
Certainly not. It's something fundamentally different from picking for resale. Here, people simply enjoy picking the strawberries themselves, especially children.
Can technology perhaps diminish the excitement of self-harvesting?
No, not necessarily. We tend to observe that technologization - i.e., a robot or a method of cultivation - aeroponics, for example - also generates enthusiasm and curiosity. This is then a somewhat different experience, one with a stronger learning factor, but many people also appreciate that very much.
So will there soon be self-picking experiences at the Vertical Farm?
(Laughs) Probably not. Such systems are very sensitive when it comes to outside influences. But they do increase the coolness factor of cultivation enormously, and the interest is there! We just have to think of new ways to make the experience tangible for the visitors. It's certainly possible, and we're working on it.
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