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Clear thinking about farm mechanization

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I came across this item of interest on the Guardian website recently.

It is entitled “Grapes, Berries, and Robots: Is Silicon Valley Coming for Farm Workers Jobs?”

It is about the use of mechanization to displace human labor on farms, particularly those growing fruits and vegetables.

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Mechanization “has the potential to alleviate difficult aspects of the job,” says the article. “But [workers] also fear the rush to automate is being done without their input, and in a way that privileges farm owners, tech developers and investors without considering the consequences for workers.”

The article quotes Maria Cadenas, executive director of the California nonprofit Santa Cruz Community Ventures: “It’s the same issue with automation in any industry, is it going to replace jobs? And, if so, is it replacing jobs with higher paid wages?”

Cadenas “cites the example of how mechanization brought into [processing] tomato harvesting in the 1960s resulted in an estimated 32,000 farm workers  losing their jobs and pushing hundreds of small farms out of business.”

The answer is clear.

Yes: automation on the farm—if it proceeds apace—will displace many jobs, those of fruit and vegetable pickers, for example. Undoubtedly it will create some higher-paid (and, we may hope, easier) jobs, but it is likely to remove the need for much human labor, and thus the need for workers.

That is its purpose.

Since large-scale fruit and vegetable farming came to California in the late nineteenth century, it has always relied on immigrant workers for the industry’s many labor-intensive tasks.

At this point, much of immigrant labor is illegal. It would be unkind and unfair to say that these laborers are undesirables: most of them are brave, tough, and hard-working people who are trying to establish better lives for themselves.

But they are undesired. That is not my verdict. It is the verdict of the U.S. government across many decades and many administrations. I do not see the present administration, or any foreseeable one, changing this policy to any great degree.

Indeed, the present administration is being reviled by Southern governors for not keeping enough illegal immigrants out of the country.

The rush to mechanization in fruit and vegetable production—and it is a desperate one—is an attempt to replace labor that is in many and most cases illegal.

It has long been known that illegal farm workers do not displace American workers, since not enough American workers want those jobs.

No doubt a large-scale guest worker program—a broadened and streamlined H-2A program—would go far toward remedying this problem. But the political will to implement such a program does not exist.

Mechanization has a long way to go.

As I noted in a previous column, asparagus is one of the most promising crops for mechanical harvesting, but that is almost irrelevant domestically, since some 80-90 percent of the crop is imported. The surviving domestic growers are principally providing a specialty crop for California upscale restaurants.

In the end, the fruit and vegetable industry can hardly be blamed for trying to replace workers it is not supposed to have.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.