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Irish mushroom growers explore automation as viable alternative for labor-intensive processes

Every mushroom in Ireland is currently harvested manually, a labor-intensive process facing challenges due to the scarcity of available workers. This has led mushroom producers to explore automation as a viable alternative. Donal Gernon, a Teagasc Mushroom Adviser, highlighted the industry's movement towards automation, including both semi-automated and fully automated systems, as a response to labor shortages. A seminar organized by Teagasc Ashtown presented opportunities for growers to learn about automation technologies from Irish, Belgian, and Dutch companies.

According to Gernon, the adoption of these technologies is imminent, with trials of robotics expected to commence within the next 12–18 months. While automation may raise concerns about job displacement, Gernon believes the transition will be gradual, with robots supplementing rather than fully replacing the human workforce. The shift towards automation is driven by the difficulty in sourcing labor for mushroom harvesting, a task that encompasses several steps from picking to packaging.

Semi-automated systems, already in use in Europe and Canada, allow for two-handed picking and streamline the process of trimming, weighing, and packaging mushrooms. Full automation would further reduce labor requirements by performing all these tasks without human intervention. Gernon anticipates that growers will likely adopt a mix of systems to optimize production. He also notes the significant evolution of Ireland's mushroom sector, which has consolidated from over 1,000 growers to just 28, yet maintains the same production volume.

The industry's reliance on labor, historically sourced from Eastern and Southern Europe, has become unsustainable due to dwindling labor pools. Automation emerges as a necessary adaptation to these challenges, with funding and investment being critical factors for growers considering this transition. Despite the futuristic aspect of automation, Gernon sees it as essential for the sector's survival and growth.


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