While agricultural lobbyists continue to push the White House to increase seasonal agriculture visas such as the H-2A, the industry itself is increasingly turning to automation, making more and more labor-intensive agricultural jobs obsolete. In the past, I wrote about how unmanned drones have driven efficiencies in soil analysis and crop monitoring, and how electronic irrigation has reduced the need for monitoring sprinkler position, status, and speed in person. Perhaps automation is most apparent in crop picking, which is increasingly handled by robots rather than farmworkers.
A February report from the Washington Post from one strawberry farm in Florida found farmworkers picking berries alongside a robot that engineers expected would replace all or most of those workers within the year. That robot in particular was from Harvest Croo, one of the leading robotics companies in the agriculture space. On Harvest Croo's website, the company brags that its robot, named "Harv", can pick an entire strawberry plant in eight seconds, move to the next plant in 1.5 seconds (including inspection time), and cover eight acres per robot per day. That means one robotic picker is able to do the work of 30 human pickers.
Harvest Croo is far from the only robotics company innovating in harvesting. Another company producing robotic strawberry pickers, Agrobot, recently released its new E-Series robotic harvester. The E-Series has up to 24 robotic arms which work simultaneously to pick multiple rows of strawberry plants, and uses 3-D sensing to instantly inspect berries.
These robots are on the cutting edge of a much broader trend in farm automation. Goldman Sachs' equity research department estimated in 2016 that farm tech will be a $240 billion market by 2050, with harvesting automation playing a major role. It believes that automation will drive a 70 percent lift in crop yields by that time.
As the Center's executive director, Mark Krikorian, has noted, if the government wants to help American farmers stay competitive, perhaps it should consider investing in agricultural technology subsidies. "Rather than promise a chicken in every pot," Krikorian asks, "why not a robot in every field?" One can only imagine how much more efficient American agriculture could be if the government helped farmers purchase E-Series and Harvs, among other robots.
Farmers may be tempted to solve their short-term labor challenges with even more H-2A guestworkers, such as one farmer in Sonoma County who is reportedly spending $28,000 per bed and millions in housing to lure in foreign workers. However, in the long-term they'd be far better served accepting the inevitability of more farm automation and investing accordingly.