We may have had a glimpse of the future of farming, and it just might have a clinking sound.
USA Today recently featured a story on mechanized farming, a trend that may reach into, and solve many of agriculture’s recurring problems.
A focus of the story was a Coachella lettuce farmer who is using a special attachment on his field tractor that is essentially doing the work formerly done by about 30 human workers.
That may sound a little frightening to young job seekers, but young folks are part of the reason that growers are increasingly relying on machines instead of humans — younger job seekers don’t favor that kind of work in the first place.
Another significant element in the shift to mechanized farming is the general labor shortage, and even when workers are available, the cost to the grower has been increasing steadily.
While agriculture is critically important to almost every American, in the end farming is a business, and if a business can’t make a profit, it will soon go under. That is the theory behind federal crop subsidies and other policy decisions that favor growers.
Farming is a $50-billion industry in California, and growers here on the Central Coast are a big part of that overall picture. We write about crop reports and agriculture’s role in the local economy every year, and we can’t emphasize enough how crucial farmers and ranchers are to our general well-being.
But the ag industry is being pummeled. California has a new overtime pay law that cuts into growers’ bottom line. That, coupled with the Trump administration’s relentless attacks on immigration combine to put a heavy weight around growers’ necks, who are literally caught between government policy and blistering, anti-immigrant rhetoric from our elected leaders.
So, growers are faced with a dilemma — navigate the incredibly cumbersome federal H-2A farmer worker visa program, or turn to machines to do work once done by humans.
The H-2A situation is currently playing out in North County, with a push/pull between policy makers, growers and residents, who are resisting efforts to house farm workers in residential neighborhoods. With a depleted labor pool, local growers are trying to think outside the box.
And here’s what that effort could result in — either shifting to crops that are less human labor-intensive, moving farming operations to Mexico, or finding another career. Shifting to less labor-intensive crops likely would mean the end of fresh vegetables being grown here. We don’t see how that would help anyone.
The California Farm Bureau Federation conducted a survey in late 2017 on how farmers are coping with their changing operational landscape, and reports that more than half of growers are experiencing labor shortages, nearly half are boosting pay to compensate for the shortage, but more than a third are shifting to other crops or using mechanized equipment to harvest crops.
No matter how you interpret those facts, the bottom line is that government policy decisions and uncertainty about the future of immigration will cause a spike in food prices. A Farm Bureau Federation officials said this: “At the end of the day, if you want your food grown in the United States, we need to find a way to have a legal and stable labor supply for farmers.”
Without such a labor force, delays in harvesting or the elimination of certain crops is inevitable.
If our elected policy makers at the federal level do not come up with solutions, and fairly quickly, this region’s agriculture will change, maybe with robots in the fields.