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Wyoming Farmers Turning To Robots To Ease Labor Shortages 

in News/Agriculture

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By Kevin Killough, energy reporter

Automated ordering kiosks at restaurants and self-checkout lines at grocery stores are becoming commonplace. As labor shortages continue to be a problem across the board in the United States, some companies are turning to machines.

That includes farmers, who are looking to automation to do the work that people don’t want to do anymore.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports employment in agriculture will grow slower than average for other occupations at just 1% between 2019 and 2029. 

Working hard, manual labor for long hours outdoors doesn’t attract a lot of applicants these days. Fewer young people also are considering careers in agriculture, and immigration restrictions make it difficult for farmers to tap into immigrant labor to fill those jobs. 

Get This Party Started

Ben Sauder, vice president of agronomy for Frenchman Valley Coop, which has locations in Pine Bluffs, has been experimenting with automated farm machinery prototypes from Raven Industries Inc. The company’s OmniPower systems can be paired with existing machinery to create self-driving equipment. 

Last year, Raven provided Frenchman Valley with an OmniPower system that was paired with a spreader box, which is used to put crop nutrients on a field near Pine Bluffs. It was one of Wyoming’s first. 

The machine was operated with a tablet and a controller that looks like a deluxe version of a video game controller. The results were what one might expect with any emerging technology still in its infancy. 

“That was, for lack of a better term, to get the party started,” Sauder said. 

As a proof-of-concept test, several of the robots were distributed across the United States used for different applications. 

“We have the only one left,” Sauder said. 

Sauder said they had to work some bugs out, but once they did that, the system worked as it was intended to. 

The platform the system was mounted on didn’t fit row crops, which are crops planted in rows for machinery tailored to evenly spaced rows. So they took it to the Pine Bluffs location because it has wide open spaces on alfalfa fields, which are just fields of grass — or more precisely, legumes.  

Sauder said Frenchman Valley uses it mainly as an educational tool to get high-schoolers interested in agronomy and agriculture. 

One Less Driver

While fully automated machines have a way to go before they’re in commercial production, other agriculture technologies are cutting down labor, even if they still need a driver. 

Ric Rodriguez, owner of Rodriguez Farms Inc., grows barley and beets on Heart Mountain near Powell. 

In a conventional sugar beet harvest, a rotor beater cuts off the head of the beet and a beet loader pulls the vegetable from the ground. A couple years ago, Rodriguez invested in a sugar beet harvester from German-based Ropa that does both jobs. 

“We harvest beats all in one pass. It cleans the tops and pulls them and loads them and everything. Pretty interesting machine,” Rodriguez said. 

It reduces a two-person job to one.

Robot Bo Peep

Companies are continuing to innovate toward complete automation that will allow more food to be produced with fewer workers. 

Tech companies and university research departments are working on concept robots that inspect crops, herd sheep and pull weeds. A few tech startups in California are developing robots that can pick apples. In most cases, the designs are too expensive to be cost effective for the farm, but as with all technologies, the price will come down over time. 

At the January Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, John Deere unveiled a fully automated tractor. According to John Deere sales materials, the driverless tractor has six pairs of cameras that allow it to avoid obstacles and, along with GPS, stay on course. It operates within less than an inch of accuracy. The farmer sets the tractor for autonomous operation with a mobile phone, from which can the tractor’s movements can be monitored along with any problems that arise in the course of its tasks. 

“It’s great. It’s the future,” Sauder said. 

At the same time, Sauder said, growers are expected to perform the same type of work with fewer and fewer people. The farming community powered by driverless machinery could look very different in the future. 

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Trade sector could use displaced coal miners, officials say

in Energy/Economic development/News

By Seneca Flowers, Cowboy State Daily

Business and government leaders around the Wyoming are scrambling to make sure Wyoming workers remain Wyoming workers as the jobs in the coal industry subside.

In 2016, nearly 7 percent of the state workforce was employed in the extractive energy sector, which includes coal, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. But with Blackjewel’s recent layoff of nearly 600 people, the state will feel the shockwaves on multiple fronts. The immediate issue is figuring out how to re-employ displaced workers. The good news is skilled trade workers are in more demand than many may think, according to some officials around the state.

Rick Mansheim, manager for state Workforce Centers in Gillette and Newcastle, has been in the front lines of trying to get the miners back to work. He said he has heard that more than 100 miners may have found new jobs, but his organization has no way to know the exact number.

“We have a whole gamut of training we can do,” Mansheim said. 

He said that some of the Blackjewel employees are taking commercial driver’s license and other college classes. He added that in the past, his offices have also been able to help people into the nursing and welding fields.

After Blackjewel’s two mines closed, the Gillette and Newcastle Workforce Centers held information sessions at the Gillette College Technical Education Center that attracted more than 300 people from the mines. The centers also held career fairs with employers from the region that attracted nearly 500 job seekers.

Help wanted in the trades

Mansheim said many companies heard of the layoffs and reached out to him directly looking to fill the void of trade workers.

State Rep. Mike Greear, R-Gillette, said the state needs more trade workers. Greear is the co-chair of the Legislature’s Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee and also the president and CEO of Wyoming Sugar.

As a CEO, Greear said he cannot recruit skilled workers. They just aren’t there. So he must develop and continuously look for them. He said he has heard similar stories from other businesses in the state.

“I think it is an unintended consequence of the Hathaway (scholarship) program, which is a wonderful program,” Greear said.

He said many young people have chosen to pursue a college education rather than enter the trade sector.

As a company president, he is soliciting high school students and offering them trade jobs with possible future opportunities that include welding or machinist certifications for those who would like to remain in their communities.

But he can only do so much as a business leader. As a state leader, he is also limited.

“The Legislature can do good things—it can set policy, it can help guide us over some bumpy roads, but in the end, it’s got to be up to the industry to be able to attract them,” Greear said. “The government can’t do everything for everyone.”

The disappearing coal job

For those workers who want to remain in their communities, finding coal jobs is going to be more difficult as the industry slows and transforms.

Economist Rob Godby, director for the University of Wyoming’s Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy, doesn’t see coal magically rebounding anytime soon because technology and the free market will naturally reduce coal’s demand.

“Coal is in real decline,” Godby said. “The (Blackjewel) bankruptcy this summer has demonstrated how disruptive that can be.”

Godby said he expects renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to become the dominant providers of energy in the future because of policy changes with climate change and technological advances that make renewable energy production more efficient.

Greear acknowledged renewables are part of an overall portfolio for energy, but they are often erroneously blamed for the decreasing coal demand.

“The real driver of coal moving out of being the more attractive option is low natural gas prices—plain and simple,” Greear said. 

He added that as coal’s share of energy production has declined, the share provided by renewable energy has increased. But renewables have revealed some reliability issues, according to Greear, so he sees natural gas as a more stable source of energy.

Godby said technology is to blame for cheaper natural gas, which he calls “the largest factor to coal’s decline.”

In addition, Godby said technological advances in natural gas production and renewable energy production have caused coal to lose its market share prominence. The impact will not likely reverse, he said.

“You can’t put those technologies back…you can’t put those genies in a bottle,” Godby said. “Once they are invented, they are really hard to forget. Technological progress happens all the time. It’s disruptive, and old technologies are replaced by new ones.

“Nobody’s building the coal-fired power plants,” Godby continued. “So eventually they are going to age out, be retired. And they are not being replaced with other coal-fired power plants.” 

Diminished local dollars from coal

Fewer coal-fired plants mean less revenue for the state and towns.

Coal production in Wyoming has declined 22.6 percent in last five years, 29.7 percent in last the 10 years, and 34.8 percent since its booming peak of 2008, according to the Wyoming Mining Association.

Coal is the second largest source of tax revenue to state and local governments, according to the WMA, with about $1 billion in tax revenue paid every year.

But the reality is that coal may not always be able to pay the bulk of the government’s bills—at least not in its current state.

Greear said state and local governments have some time to prepare for a downturn in revenues.

While coal-fired plants are shutting down, supply projections suggest production of 240 million to 260 million tons for the next 10 years.

Although Greear expects a slow, steady decline in production, he doesn’t count coal out of Wyoming’s revenue stream entirely.

Greear said there is demand for Powder River Basin coal among some Asian countries. However, efforts to build coal terminals in Washington that would allow shipments to Asian countries have failed.

Godby said even if the terminals were built, they wouldn’t likely be a long-term solution to the coal industry’s woes and may just prolong its demise.

He added even though a prolonged death may still be economically beneficial to the state in the short-term basis, the long-term outlook may not be positive.

“It’s far from guaranteed that the developing world is going to stick to coal for quite a while,” Godby said. “It is also the case that countries like China and others are turning to renewables and natural gas much more quickly than people expected.”

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