With Fewer Farm Laborers, Is the Mechanization Era Dawning?

Published on April 3rd, 2017

By Joe Guzzardi
April 3, 2017
For decades, the U.S. agriculture industry has lobbied hard for more non-immigrant guest worker visas to help harvest its crops. Ag leaders and their congressional representatives argue, with some truth, that no matter the wage, Americans won’t do field work.
But for just as many years, immigration reduction proponents counter that the solution isn’t importing poverty in the form of more cheap labor visas, but to mechanize ag operations, done effectively worldwide.
The moment of truth is at hand, and the world’s breadbasket, California, is struggling to find its way in the new reality. Because President Donald Trump promised to enforce immigration laws, some of last year’s farm workers may have been removed. And illegal Southwest border crossings that might have included future ag workers have dropped 60 percent since President Trump’s inauguration.
More H-2A ag visas, growers’ default remedy to the perceived labor shortage, is a temporary but flawed fix. Because employers widely abuse the visa, workers are underpaid, and can’t advance in the labor market because the employers that sponsor them controls their fate, modern day indentured servitude.
However, high immigration, both through the legal H-2A visa or illegal entry, discourages mechanization, the long-term solution, and diminishes productivity. A recent Los Angeles Times story highlighted the growers’ dilemma and underscored the fact that the most efficient resolution to labor shortages is mechanization.
For most growers, the mechanization era is at hand. A San Joaquin Valley grape grower told Times reporters that when he couldn’t afford to raise his pay scale, he spent $50,000 in equipment, which allowed him to cut his crew, and saved him $80 an acre culling his crop.
Mechanization also has been a boon to other crop growers. When Arizona passed laws that penalized employers who hired illegal immigrants, a jalapeño pepper grower invested $2 million in a stem-removing machine. With the money he saved, he hired skilled laborers at higher wages, and improved his productivity.
A Georgia onion grower bought a harvester, and cut his workforce from 100 to 10, and a Vermont dairy now uses robots to milk its cows. The robots weigh the cows, take their temperatures and check their milk for infections. The dairy owner said that his robots beat the humans “all the way around,” including eliminating the possibility of a midnight call from immigration authorities advising that his workforce won’t be showing up the next day.
Despite mechanization’s efficiency and ample evidence that cheap labor dependence is cruel and exploitative, many in Congress and the Chamber of Commerce are unwilling to let go of the H-2A visa that often prevents Americans without a high school degree from getting a job. Last year, about 5,000 H-2A visas were unused during FY 2015, and a group of 32 U.S. Senators want them added to the current 66,000 annual cap.
But with President Trump in the White House at least until 2020, the endless cheap labor supply may completely dry up. Growers would be better advised to consider cost and time-saving mechanization rather than lobbying Congress to artificially manipulate the H-2A visa cap. For its part, Congress should use its influence to encourage growers to enter the 21st century.

Joe Guzzardi is a Senior Writing Fellow with Californians for Population Stabilization. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @joeguzzardi19.

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