Machine Work

One of my friends at the farmers market, a large scale conventional vegetable grower, told me that our big local nursery just bought a machine that will do the transplanting now. That machine eliminated 15 jobs.

By now I’m sure most people are aware of how rapidly automation and robots are eliminating human jobs. From cashiers, to truck drivers, to anesthesiologists–everybody seems to be on the firing line. I’ve seen estimates that as many as 60% of American jobs could be eliminated over the next 20 years.

These stories are usually in the context of concern about what will happen to the people who are working those jobs. I’ve written about that myself, several times.

But there is an interesting agricultural angle to this, that seems under-reported to me. Industrial agriculture is frantically trying to mechanize, not so much to increase profits as to address what they’re calling a crisis: the shortage of labor.

The cover story of last month’s Vegetable Grower magazine was titled: “The Disappearing Workforce. Vegetable Growers Need Labor.” The article began:

The No. 1 issue for vegetable growers isn’t pests, food safety, or even weather. It’s a lack of labor. Growers handle a lot of issues, from pests to uncooperative weather to heavy regulations. But all of those pale in the face of labor issues.

There are stories of crops rotting in the fields. For a variety of reasons, the labor source upon which the industry has historically depended is drying up.The growers are saying that their survival depends upon finding ways to harvest crops with fewer workers.

For commodity crops like corn and soybeans, automation isn’t very difficult. All you need are long rows and a big pile of money.

Mechanizing vegetable harvests is considerably more difficult, as machine harvesters damage the produce in ways skilled human hands don’t and, at least until lately, machines haven’t been able to distinguish ripe from unripe produce.

The agricultural machinery manufacturers are predicting a coming boom in sales, as they start rolling out newfangled machines that will do the old-fashioned human jobs. It’s interesting to see the kinds of changes that are being required by growers.

Row spacing has to change, to enable the machine to have enough room. Double row beds are being replaced by single row beds. Vegetable varieties that mature all at once are being engineered, so as to allow single-cut/destruct harvesting. Breeders are generating varieties that cluster their fruit more tightly, facilitating mechanical harvest. And now there is even a machine with an electronic sensor “eye” that can supposedly tell a green tomato from a ripe tomato, brushing one into one bin and the other into another (this after another machine yanks up the entire crop, vines and all, and delivers them to the sorter machine, which also grinds up the vines).

I can’t imagine that the taste and quality of vegetables will benefit from these changes.