When workers are scarce, mechanize. Or, to put it in economist-speak, substitute capital for labor. That substitution is the story of agriculture these last couple of centuries. As the rural workforce drifted away to the cities, technological advances fueled greatly increased agricultural output with much less human input.
Row-crop agriculture in the American Midwest led the way. It is astonishing, really, how few people it takes to operate a modern 2,000-acre corn-and-soybean farm. Just think of how many hands would have been needed to work a farm that size a few decades ago.
Fruit-and-vegetable agriculture has mechanized more slowly. On big farms in California and Florida hundreds or even thousands of workers, mostly immigrants, pick many fruits and vegetables by hand. That's changing, however, and for a predictable reason: The labor force is shrinking, and efforts to reverse the shrinkage have failed.
As a result, explains an article in the Los Angeles Times (http://tiny.cc/…), the only options left for California farmers are "changing what we grow and how we grow it." In other words, switching to crops that require less labor and introducing new machines.
The root problem, says the Times, is that "immigrant farmworkers in California's agricultural heartlands are getting older and not being replaced. After decades of crackdowns, the net flow across the U.S.-Mexico border reversed in 2005, a trend that accelerated through 2014, according to a Pew Research Center study."
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I can hear some readers asking, "Why don't they just raise wages?" The answer is, they have. According to another Los Angeles Times piece (http://tiny.cc/…), field-laborer wages in California increased 50% between 1996 and 2015, 13% between 2010 and 2015 alone. Grape pickers in Napa County can now make more than $40,000 a year.
Growers still can't find enough workers. Further wage increases would put some of them out of business and make buying machines more profitable than hiring people for others.
Already the machines are coming. The Times article describes some of them. Driscoll's, the big berry company, is working with a new robotic strawberry picker. The company won't allow this AgroBot to be photographed, but the Times calls it "more John Deere than C3PO."
Ramsay Highlander, a small California equipment maker, has developed a lettuce cutter that uses high-speed water jets. Another equipment company, Tanimura & Antle, offers a lettuce planter that is twice as fast as the currently used machine and requires only a tenth the labor.
These new contraptions are a work in progress. The AgroBot still fails to pick one berry in three. A "lettuce thinning" machine called See and Spray can do the work of 20 laborers but misses some of the sprouts it's programmed to kill.
In addition to mechanizing, California growers are also adapting to the labor shortage by switching crops, or at least seeds. "Vast areas of the Central Valley have switched from labor-intensive crops such as grapes or vegetables to almonds, which are mechanically shaken from the tree," the Times reports. One of the most labor-intensive crops -- asparagus -- they hardly grow at all anymore. Production has fallen nearly 75% since 2000, with Mexico picking up the slack.
Raisin farmers, who've already adjusted their vineyards to make some mechanization possible, are looking at changing to a new grape that will enable them to fully mechanize. There's precedent for that. California tomato growers started using a mechanical harvester decades ago. The tradeoff was they had to plant a tougher-skinned tomato.
The reason tomato growing mechanized is being replayed in other specialty crops today. The tomato growers were forced to use machines because they lost their labor force in the 1960s when the U.S. and Mexico ended the Bracero program, which allowed Mexicans to work in California agriculture legally. Today, it's the growth of manufacturing in Mexico, which is giving jobs to Mexicans who might otherwise cross the border looking for work.
Whether the effects of the mechanization will also resonate remains to be seen. One of the big effects was farm consolidation. The mechanical harvesters only made economic sense for growers with lots of land. More than 80% of California's 5,000 tomato growers went out of business (http://tiny.cc/…). Will history repeat itself? California farmers have to wonder.
Urban Lehner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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