Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Labor shortage from increased immigration enforcement has farmers turning to technology

Lettuce thinning machine (Blue River Technology photo)
While President Trump's plan to build a border wall and ramp up immigration enforcement could hurt agriculture as a whole, some fruit and vegetable farmers are dealing with labor shortages by switching to automation, Elizabeth Weise reports for USA Today. "The immigrant workforce that has long picked and packed the nation's fruits and vegetables move to better jobs as soon as they can, replaced by new immigrants." Those new immigrants are becoming scarce, largely do to increased border security and a strong Mexican economy that has created more jobs for workers back home.

"Robotic, sensor and other companies are striving to fill that hole," Weise writes. "The technology, from a Lettuce Bot to crop drones to robotic strawberry pickers, is still in its infancy. But agricultural-tech companies say any policies that further keep out immigrants is likely to increase demand."

California, the nation's top agriculture state, has 333,000 farm workers, an estimated 80 percent of which are undocumented, said Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League. He said more stringent immigration rules will have workers fleeing the country, especially "a requirement in an early version of the proposed immigration executive order that would expand E-Verify, an internet-based system for businesses to verify worker eligibility. Between that and what he sees as onerous regulation, he says farm labor costs could become unsustainable."

California-based Taylor Farms, one of the nation’s largest fresh-cut fruit and vegetable suppliers, is already experimenting with dozens of types of technology, Weise writes. Bruce Taylor, CEO, said "Trump’s immigration policies 'are going to force us to solve our labor problems faster.'"

Weise writes, "The labor shortage is especially acute in California, which grows one-third of the nation's vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts, according to the state's Department of Food and Agriculture. In a state that produces $47 billion in agricultural products a year, farmers say labor is the No. 1 challenge." (Read more)

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