Robotic devices like lettuce thinners and grape-leaf pullers have replaced so many human hands on U.S. farms in recent years that many jobs now held by illegal workers may not exist by the time Donald Trump builds his promised wall.
For many American farmers, the automation push isn’t just about the President-elect’s goal to seal the border with Mexico, the traditional source of cheap migrant labor for the world’s largest agricultural exporter. There just aren’t enough crop pickers around as immigration slows, deportations rise and the prospects of congressional reform look remote.
That’s what prompted Steve Tennnes, a fruit and vegetable grower in Charlotte, Michigan, to buy a $138,000 machine that can collect up to three times as many apples per hour than workers who currently use ladders and buckets, and do so more safely. He will be able to harvest more with fewer workers, and the benefits will expand as he replants his orchard over the next decade to make it easier for the device to operate among the trees.
After three straight years of declining U.S. farm income, sources of labor are becoming increasingly unreliable and costly, especially with illegal immigration likely to face a crackdown in the Trump administration. That’s forcing more growers to invest in machines that reduce human involvement in the production cycle.
More than 300,000 U.S. farm-workers don’t have valid immigration papers, according to a 2009 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center. Other studies suggest the number may be more than 1 million, based on the seasonality of the work and historical trends. That would be a sizable chunk of the more than 2.6 million jobs that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated for domestic farms last year.
But the supply of immigrant workers has been tightening. According to a Labor Department survey, in 1998, about 22 percent of foreign farm workers were in the U.S. for the first time. By 2013, that figure had plunged to 2 percent. Fewer are arriving illegally, and those who do come don’t want farm work, said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, a group of employers based in Washington.
The vineyards in Lodi, California, owned by Brad Goehring are adding mechanical leaf-pullers to the automated harvesters that already reduced his need for migrant grape-pickers by 95 percent. While his non-harvest workforce remained stable, he now needs just 15 people to pick the grapes, down from 300 before the machines.
Even with all the technological advances, there are many crops that still require human hands, at least for now, said Wallace Huffman, an agricultural economist with Iowa State University in Ames. Machines typically work better for foods grown for processing rather than those sold in grocery stories, because many consumers demand an unblemished appearance, he said.
“The soft fruits, the berries, the strawberries and blueberries are very delicate,” Huffman said. “They can easily be bruised and smashed, even by hand. Trying to move to mechanical picking is difficult.”
Still, with new devices being developed and Trump’s push to limit illegal immigration, the industry is accelerating its shift to automation.