No People Necessary

Even in this age of industrialized agriculture, vegetable farming still requires lots of human labor. But maybe not for long.

Once again the most recent issue of Vegetable Farmer magazine devotes its front page story to the “labor crisis.” Even after the severe labor shortages of last year, this year’s labor force is smaller still. Estimates are that growers will only have 80% of the workers they need, despite $15-20/hour wages (and free housing).

While some operations are considering abandoning the most labor-intensive crops (like strawberries), robotics and automation appear to be the fast-approaching solution. Innovation and development of automated harvesting machines is occurring at an unprecedented pace. “We are getting factories in the fields,” says Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics Philip Martin of the University of California, Davis.

Not only do these new machines pick the crops, they also wrap and package them, and log when and where they’re harvested, eliminating the need for humans to fill out the traceability paperwork.

Although it wasn’t discussed in the articles, no doubt scientists are also continuing to design vegetable varieties that don’t bruise easily–facilitating mechanical harvesting.

It’s probably just a matter of time until the vegetables in the grocery stores arrive there without having ever been touched by a human hand.

I suppose agribusiness will be relieved that it no longer has to rely on a shrinking labor force. Many will see this as progress. But to me it seems be yet another reason to keep a garden and shop at the farmer’s market.