Now, the $47-billion agriculture industry is trying to bring technological innovation up to warp speed before it runs out of low-wage immigrant workers.
California will have to remake its fields like it did its factories, with more machines and better-educated workers to labor beside them, or risk losing entire crops, economists say. “California agriculture just isn’t going to look the same,” said Ed Taylor, a UC Davis rural economist. “You’re going to be hard-pressed to find crops grown as labor-intensively as they are now.”
Driscoll’s, which grows berries in nearly two dozen countries and is the world’s top berry grower, already is moving its berries to table-top troughs, where they are easier for both human and machines to pick, as it has done over the last decade in Australia and Europe. “We don’t see — no matter what happens — that the labor problem will be solved,” said Soren Bjorn, president of Driscoll’s of the Americas. That’s because immigrant farmworkers in California’s agricultural heartlands are getting older and not being replaced. After decades of crackdowns, the net flow across the U.S.-Mexico border reversed in 2005, a trend that accelerated through 2014, according to a Pew Research Center study. And native-born Americans aren’t interested in the job, even at wages that have soared at higher than average rates. “We’ve been masking this problem all these years with a system that basically allowed you to accept fraudulent documents as legal, and that’s what has been keeping this workforce going,” said Steve Scaroni, whose Fresh Harvest company is among the biggest recruiters of farm labor. “And now we find out we don’t have much of a labor force up here, at least a legal one.” Stated bluntly, there aren’t enough new immigrants for the state’s nearly half-million farm labor jobs — especially as Mexico creates competing manufacturing jobs in its own cities, Taylor said. He has calculated that the pool of potential immigrants from rural Mexico shrinks every year by about 150,000 people. Not surprisingly, wages for crop production have climbed 13% from 2010 to 2015 — a higher rate than the state average, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of Labor Department data. Frank Maconachy is skeptical of solutions imported from tech centers. His company, Ramsay Highlander, started as a greasy machine shop in the Salinas Valley and slowly migrated toward Silicon Valley instead. The company, with $15 million in annual sales, builds a fleet of computerized and sensor-driven machines for the lettuce and produce industry — and he is working with AgroBot’s U.S. competitor for strawberry picking, Harvest Croo, based in Plant City, Fla. Become a subscriber today to support stories like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.
An early generation of robotic machine uses a band saw to mow whole rows of baby lettuce and other greens. But when produce giant Taylor Farms tried it on romaine heads, a slight height variation in the beds put the saw right across the heart of the heads, leaving nothing but shredded leaves, Maconachy said. Maconachy developed a cutter using high-speed water jets. It now cuts all the romaine heads cleanly, and can be adapted for cabbage and celery. “That machine took the work of 30 people and brought it down to about 12 people,” Maconachy said.