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.



20 comments on “No People Necessary

  1. shoreacres says:

    I enjoyed the phrase “vegetable varieties that donโ€™t bruise easily.” You mean like the tomatoes that show up in the grocery store? That phrase translates as tasteless, odorless, and generally unpalatable. Ah, progress.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, indeed we are in a technological revolution. It is invading all areas of our lives. Zuckerberg, the inventor of Facebook, says that we are on the brink of the biggest robotic revolution ever seen in the next five years. We are very close to reliable cars that drive themselves. Almost all commercial airliners fly themselves and some can even land without humans if needed. The explosion of technology started back in the 40s with the invention of the TV. Well I guess it was Marconi and the wireless telegraph. Nope wait, probably old Ben Franklin when he discovered electricity. Those pioneers of invention would drop their jaws if they only could see where their inventions have taken the world. I came into technology in the 1960s and as I’ve said many times that I worked in technology for 41 years. So I have watched it mature into what it is today. I think it’s fascinating to see what technology can do and still I have this connection to the land. My heritage roots go deep into agriculture and after a lifetime of working technology, my peace and contentment comes from working the soil and welcoming being tired at the end of the day. Technology is a fragile thing that could end with one burst of a solar flare from the sun. Some say it’s enviable to happen. Only time will tell what the future brings.

    Have a great people ARE necessary day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I was surprised recently when a friend of mine who is an engineer with a long career in the high-tech world mentioned our vulnerability to EMPs. I thought that was just a myth. He assured me it a very real thing.


  3. avwalters says:

    And will the robots eat the produce, too. (Because that’s as close as it comes to being food from my perspective.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. BeeHappee says:

    But can robots become good at foraging, Bill?! I think we got them beaten in that area. ๐Ÿ™‚ i am watching with amazement some Arizona folks here gathering up so many mushrooms (a good season here now), like 150 lbs of wild mushrooms a day. It is nice to see.
    Hydrophonic is quite big here, because it makes it easier for growers to produce without any decent soil, which is precious in Arizona, and easy to control water and mineral flow. I tasted some of the products, and it is just not the same for me, it lacks depth in flavors.
    I can really taste the difference of the vegetables that I ate in Illinois and Vermont, and Arizona. Better soils do make a huge difference in tastes. It is incredible how much nuance is lost now that most of the produce in chain stores is virtually identical and tasteless. And when you start eating some wild foods, then you can really see just how much of the true taste we had lost in the production cycle.
    I try not to miss a single farmers market, because for me, it is as nourishing to the soul as it is to the table. I hope we wake up for appreciating quality over quantity before it is too late, before we are more mechanical than those robots.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      There is a big controversy these days over whether calling hydroponically grown produce “organic” should be allowed. There are lots of commercial advantages to hydroponics, so I expect their market share will continue to grow. Most people don’t appreciate the difference in food quality, as you do.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Well one thing Bill.. I know the labour of love will continue in our own plots.. and we will be gathering our own food we grow.
    But it is scary how commercially we are altering genetically our food.. And how much is being radiated also to enable it to last longer..
    Give me fresh.. un-sprayed, and imperfect veggies any day of the week.. At least I know what I am eating.. xx
    Wishing you well Bill

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dalo 2013 says:

    It is amazing how technology is finding its way into an industry where I never would have imagined.
    There is something getting your hands dirty with farming that is noble. To see it vanishing as quickly as it is with the industrialization and modernization is something else.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Makes me wonder if there are any jobs immune from robotic takeover. I agree with you. It’s already true that most of the stuff eaten in our culture is processed food that has never been touched by a human hand. But if the day comes when that is true even with vegetables and whole foods, then we will have lost something of great value.


  7. Do you homely believe we have so little purchasing power? The buy local movement is obviously more active up here… Power to The People – and the Purchasing Power of their Pockets!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “honestly” not homely):):

    Liked by 1 person

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