The Prize? Strawberries.

Photos for The Washington Post

Story, reporting and excerpts by Danielle Paquette.


Both human and machine have 10 seconds per plant. They must find the ripe strawberries in the leaves, gently twist them off the stems and tuck them into a plastic clamshell. Repeat, repeat, repeat, before the fruit spoils.

One February afternoon, they work about an acre apart on a farm the size of 454 football fields: dozens of pickers collecting produce the way people have for centuries —


and a robot that engineers say could replace most of them as soon as next year.


One Harv, seen above surrounded by potential investors, is programmed to do the work of 30 people. The machine hovers over a dozen rows of plants at the same time, picking five strawberries every second and covering eight acres a day.

Under the chassis 16 smaller steel robots scoop up strawberries with spinning, claw-like fingers, guided by camera eyes and flashing lights. Engineers compare them to duck feet, paddling furiously below the surface.


Behind the crowd of farmers and investors, a team of engineers watch the spectacle on a flat-screen TV inside a white trailer, their makeshift command center. Cameras inside Harv give them a close-up.


“It doesn’t care if it’s a Sunday or a holiday, the machine will work regardless.” - Doug Carrigan, farmer


In another section of the field, far from the commotion, the pickers work like they have always worked.

It’s 80 degrees outside, but they wear long sleeves, pants and scarves below their eyes to block the sun. They bend over, pluck the strawberries and slip them into plastic cases.


Then they sprint through the plant rows to a supervisor, who scans in each package. They are paid by the package. Slowing down means losing money.


“I see the robot and think, ‘Maybe we’re not going to have jobs anymore,’ ” - Antonio Vengas, field worker for 15 years.


Field workers return to school busses after dropping off their picks. most live in housing provided by the farm.


farmworkers remain hopeful. “I don’t think it’ll work because the people know how to pick,” says santiago Velasco, a 65 year old fieldworker, “and they go faster.”

his prediction help up During the demonstration - the robot found more than half the strawberries on each plant, but the fruit this season was bigger than anticipated. A bunch tumbled from Harv’s claws — red and juicy and now gone.


Engineers aren’t sure how many were lost — they’ve got to review hours of video. They can’t be sure Harv hit this year’s target. But they’re confident the machine can get it right next year.