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.

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21 comments on “Machine Work

  1. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, I come from a back ground of very little technology, It was exciting during my college years to get educated on the coming explosion of technology. I made it a career for 41 years and watched it go from a radio in every home, to TV in every home, to a color TV in every home, to a computer in almost every home, to a cell phone in every pocket. I watched cars become filled with more electronics than the rocket to the moon. Technology passed me by and left me in dust. Kids today are just born to know electronics and technology. I have noticed that many in the young work force today don’t want an 8 to 5 career. A solid long term job is not very high on their radar. Retirement with a ton of money in the bank is not a goal. They are content to have enough to pay the bills and live the life they want not the life the company they work for wants. Some would say that’s irresponsible and lazy but perhaps that’s the right mentality for the future work force. There’s definitely a change happening in both the work force and the mechanized technology. We are on the brink of the greatest technological advancement the world has ever known. I have both excitement for what lies ahead and sadness to leave behind the stability of what I’ve known all my life. For me, I’ve made my last transition in life and now it’s coasting to end. Fifty years from now, when my grandson is my age, life will be much different. Who knows maybe the world of transformers will be upon us.

    Have a great garden day on White Flint Farm.

    Nebraska Dave
    Urban Farmer
    dbentz24@gmail.com

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I always enjoy your perspective Dave. I’ve watched from the outside many of the things you saw from the inside. The pace of change is so rapid now, it makes my head spin to think of what life may be like in 20 years–10 even.

      I’m nervous about what automation means for working people, but whatever it is, it’s the natural end to the road we’ve been on a long time now. I wonder how many of us are going to be left as obsolete as our old technology.

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  2. Ed says:

    The world changes and will continue to do so long after we are gone. I’m not too worried about the jobs lost in agriculture because there will be more created in some other field. Like it or not, we have to adapt or we would all be still pulling a single gang plow behind a horse and planting corn, beans and squash in hills. I don’t mind doing that right now but I also know it isn’t practical if we are going to keep everyone fed.

    My oldest never knew what a window crank was in a car. I have pondered what her kids won’t about when my daughter is my age.

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    • Bill says:

      Well evidently there aren’t enough workers to do the agricultural jobs anymore, so the human cost of automated strawberry-picking won’t be as high as the cost of self-driving trucks. While it’s true that in the past displaced workers have always been able to transition to another sector, I worry that there aren’t any other sectors left for those who are naturally suited to manual labor. We can’t reasonably expect all those unemployed truck drivers to start designing smart phone apps. Maybe they’ll be our next generation of strawberry pickers.

      It’s fascinating to think about the technological changes we’ve witnessed. Some things that seemed amazing to me when they appeared during my working life (fax machines, for example) are already virtually obsolete. If history holds true, the most amazing technological achievement of the next ten years will be something that will be discovered accidentally, and isn’t even on our radar screens right now.

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  3. Tomatoes look and SMELL ripe; the skin is turgid with an intra-cellular glow. Ripe muskmelon call out for harvest; their wonderful scent carries on the breeze when they disengage themselves from the vine. Peppers have a certain feel when ready; the walls a solid texture and they have a certain heft. Beans and cucumbers can be either too tender or past due in the blink of an eye and need to be checked daily.
    Are these skills, passed from one generation to the next for millennia, so undervalued – or should I say underestimated – by AgriBusiness? No, more likely just unknown – another example of their lack of knowledge. They are no longer farmers and have no soul, no feel for the living soil their feet so seldom touch, nor their hands ever harvest.
    Instead, they leave behind death and destruction with mammoth, soil-compacting machinery while spraying layers of death upon the fields – death for weeds, for insects, for the very harvest itself…
    No wonder more and more people are learning how to grow their own food. If they only knew…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Very well said Deb. As we turn this work over to machines, we are losing an important part of what it means to be truly human, in my humble opinion. And that is a very great loss.

      So, for those of us who want dirt under our fingernails, and the joys that come from meals fairly earned, let us cultivate our gardens.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Joanna says:

        Being part of a Landscape Architecture Department at the moment and I hear a lot about the benefits of dirt beneath the finger nails, healthy green spaces and now the latest project healthy blue spaces. The folks in the university are maybe not all so connected with the land itself but instrumental in designing such spaces for people to connect with nature

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  4. shoreacres says:

    I can’t find it now, but I recently read about a farmer “somewhere” who was experiencing labor shortage issues. He raised his minimum pay to $15/hr, and (as i recall) had 120 applicants almost immediately. Now, he has more than enough labor to make things viable again. So there’s that side of the coin.

    Part of the problem surely is that we haven’t valued those who can pick crops effectively, and we haven’t valued fresh food enough to demand good supplies. To paraphrase that old saying, “Everyone complains about grocery store tomatoes, but no one does anything about it.”

    The assumption seems to be that increasing mechanization is necessary for profitability, but that example I read about shows that isn’t a blanket rule. At least one farmer has gone the other direction, increased profit, and employed people who otherwise would be unemployed.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Bill says:

      That’s encouraging. The articles I posted back in August, from the Wall Street Journal and the American Vegetable Grower, did not have examples like that. They gave examples of farms paying $16-17/hour and still not having enough labor to get the crops in, or people showing up and quitting before they finished a single day. My friend uses seasonal labor from Mexico and this year their rate is $11.50/hour plus housing and transportation.

      We have a labor shortage on this farm too, but we can’t afford to pay minimum wage, much less $15/hour. Back when I had my off-farm income I hired kid in the summer, but I just can’t afford it now. Paying them would wipe out whatever profit we hope to make. So instead we scale back to whatever I can do by myself. That’s the other side of the labor coin I suppose.

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  5. avwalters says:

    To paraphrase Wendell Berry, “What are people for…”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Nita says:

    Add robotic milkers to the technology mix. Small dairies are buying into that thinking that saddling themselves with lifelong debt for short term gain, vacations etc will give them peace of mind. A dairy near me with 150 cows just converted to that system. The farm was paid for and debt free, now it’s not. Somehow I don’t think that will improve their quality of life, but it will be interesting to watch. This particular dairy probably could have improved their bottom line simply by switching to organic (they raise the bulk of their feed) which would give them a higher price for the milk, but they don’t really believe there is a difference between organic and conventional so they chose the robotic milker route. Technology makes us technology observers not nature observers.

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    • Bill says:

      I’ve read about new milker robots, that don’t require any humans. Evidently they attach to the cows automatically and milk them. Wild.

      Your last line is hugely important I think. At what point does a person stop being a farmer and start being a factory supervisor? Is a person who never touches a cow’s udder really a dairy farmer?

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  7. I found Ed’s comment interesting. His idea that we will simply find jobs elsewhere might work if it wasn’t likely that elsewhere is probably being mechanized/robotized as well. Take transportation, for example. Self-driving vehicles will likely be the rule in the next 10-20 years. This will eliminate the number one employer in America. I wonder if any of these schemes to reduce costs/increase profits through turning work over to robots takes into consideration who is going to buy their products when massive numbers of people are thrown out of work? Not to get too political here, Bill, but I wonder what will happen in the immediate future (before we eliminate the human factor) when we deport the majority of people who are willing to bring the crops in? Just saying… –Curt

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    • Bill says:

      Ed has history on his side, and whenever I bring this subject up I get answers like that. It is true that in the past as jobs became obsolete the work force could transition to new jobs. 80% of the jobs in our country were once agricultural, and now less than 1% are. Those farmers moved to cities and took jobs in factories. But I worry that there isn’t another sector to go to now. What are blue collar people supposed to do in our new robotic high-tech economy? A while back I posted a link to an article titled “Work is for Machines” in which the author argued that nearly all human work will be replaced by machines. He advocates (as many are starting to do now) a guaranteed minimum income. That doesn’t sound like a happy future to me, but I reckon we’ll see.

      Not many people are aware of it, but the biggest lobbying group for immigration reform isn’t some progressive leftist organization, but rather red-state industrial agriculture. The industry is dependent upon undocumented workers at all stages, from field-picking to slaughterhouses. People also aren’t generally aware of the fact that the Obama administration deported more people than any previous US president. On top of that, fewer immigrants are coming to do those jobs now and the ones who are are getting older. It takes a strong back to pick strawberries all day every day, and the average age of the people willing to do that work means ever fewer strong backs.

      If food prices start spiking due to labor shortages, I expect we’ll see the tune begin to change quickly.

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      • In high school I picked pears to earn money for clothes, dates, etc., Bill, I know how hard it is. I worked along side migrant workers so I also know how hard they worked.
        Do they still pay farmers not to grow things like they used to? I always thought that was an interesting concept, especially since it was the large, corporate farmers that seemed to benefit most.
        I just read that Finland was experimenting with guaranteeing a minimum income regardless of whether the person works or not. It may be the future. I still think people need to do something to feel/be productive. Maybe we will all become bloggers. 🙂 –Cirt

        Liked by 2 people

      • I recall reading that Henry Ford believed in paying a living wage so that his employees could also afford to be his customers…

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      • Good point, Deb. And it worked. –Curt

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      • Ed says:

        Perhaps I’m optimistic by nature. But I’ve seen much larger shifts in work forces in my lifetime, one I experienced firsthand that you mentioned above. I grew up on a farm during the Farm Crisis of the early 80’s and witnessed droves of people leaving farms always worried they wouldn’t find jobs. Like you said, they all were able to find jobs and integrate into other sectors. Yes a migrant worker used to picking lettuce might not fill a position as a doctor but he might bump up to a construction worker which is a sector that has been hiring lots of people lately. The person who had their sights set on becoming a registered nurse might instead be persuaded to go on to becoming a doctor. The person looking to just be in a hospital setting might then be persuaded to be a registered nurse. I look at it as a cascade of changes rather than one person just being a plug in a hole elsewhere. Changes, especially when it comes to labor required by particular sectors don’t occur overnight.

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  8. The more I read, the bigger my vegetable garden gets……………………

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