The labor shortage faced by American farmers is not new but it is becoming acute.
The trend of steadily increased mechanization on farms is even older than the labor shortage. Many are predicting robotics will provide long term relief to large and corporate farms.
Will the Big Boys be the only farms able to afford robots when costs approach or exceed a million dollars?
Where will the growing labor shortage and high cost of robotics leave smaller family farms? Yes, between a rock and a hard place.
‘Mother Jones’ offers insight into the challenge by looking into California’s wine grape harvest. Jim
“It’s Sunday night of Labor Day weekend, but any barbecues died down hours ago, and the rural back roads of this southern Napa County neighborhood are a dark and silent maze. Around midnight, the lights of the Robert Sinskey Vineyards’ shop blink on. In the center of its gravel driveway, workers coax tractors to life and assemble large plastic bins that will soon brim with clusters of pale green pinot blanc grapes. Picked in the cool hours of the early morning, before their sugars can develop in the sunlight, the grapes will then be whisked off to the winery and prepared for fermentation.
“As 1 a.m. nears, a white van pulls up and a crew of about nine pickers, contracted by Rios Farming Co., clamber out to don neon-colored vests and headlamps. They’ve traveled two hours from Stockton, California, to be here, and for the next 10 hours or so they will together pick 25 tons of fruit…
“Napa and Sonoma counties produce most of the state’s high-end grapes in their combined 1,000 wineries. Like the rest of the state’s agriculture, the industry has long relied on immigrant workers for its heaviest labor. As of 2016, according to a federal survey, 9 out of 10 California farmworkers were born abroad, mostly in Mexico, and half were here without citizenship or legal work permits. But employers often have no way of knowing the immigration status of workers…
“Couldn’t Rios just recruit American workers? Not likely, according to the economists I interviewed. Because of low wages and grueling conditions, vineyard jobs don’t attract people born in the United States. California growers boast their pay has gone up steadily for years—Napa has the highest average farmworker wages in the state. Yet economist Martin doubts farmers will ever pay enough to lure US-born workers into the fields. ‘I think there is some wage at which Americans would do some work, but suppose it’s $25 an hour,’ he says. Before we hit that amount, he explains, robots or cheaper imports will swoop in.”