Robots May Boot Immigrants

Technology mechanizes the farm

by Christopher Persaud | Updated 03 Aug 2015 at 11:50 AM

America’s farms slowly are losing migrant workers. And robots may replace them.

Foreigners made up about 84 percent of farm workers in 1999, the highest recorded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture since the early 1990s. By 2012, that number dropped to around 78 percent. (The USDA started keeping records in 1989.)

Two likely reasons for this exodus are recessions and fewer farm subsidies from the government.

And there’s a third reason: robots.

Related: Robots to Farmers: Lettuce In

The first needs little explanation. When recessions hit the United States, fewer immigrants are drawn here, because work is sparse.

It’s the next two reasons that are more interesting.

“They [farmers] have two options: Mechanize the field, or move the intensive labor crops to other countries,” Bravo said.

Consider subsidies: When the federal government gives money to farmers, farmers hire foreign workers, explained University of Idaho professor Stephen Devadoss.

“They’re getting subsidies from the government, they’re going to produce more,” he said. “When you produce more, you need more labor. If the farmers can hire more labor at a cheaper wage rate, they would rather hire immigrants.”

The effect may be marginal, but it’s real. Cutting farm payments by an average of 7 percent annually from 1994-2007 probably translated each year into an average reduction of 1,352 fewer Mexicans working illegally on American farms from 2000-2007, according to a study by Devadoss and two other researchers.

The number is small because the demand for farm labor remains high, the study stated. And the North American Free Trade agreement of 1994 simultaneously boosted demand for that same labor. Farmers need crop pickers the way drivers need gasoline.

In just two years, from 2000 to 2002, the feds cuts farm subsidies from a $24.7 billion to $14 billion. At the same time, the dot-com bubble burst and the economy tumbled into a recession.

Robots
While the federal government still pays farmers billions, robots promise to cut labor costs. Automating crop-picking can save farmers around 20 percent on labor, said Jose Bravo, CEO of farming robot company Agrobot.

“They [the farmers] have two options: Mechanize the field, or move the intensive labor crops to other countries,” Bravo said. “Move strawberry fields to Mexico and grow potatoes in California, or something like that.”

Bravo’s Spain-based company will start selling robots in California within two years, he said.

On average, an intensive crop might cost around $50 an acre to harvest by hand, Bravo estimated. If Bravo’s numbers are accurate, a farm that grows 1,000 acres of hard-to-harvest crops (like berries and veggies) could spend $20,000 instead of $50,000. That could mean millions of dollars in savings across the country.

Whether that means farmers will hire fewer immigrants or move them to other work — and whether that means the feds will give farmers less — remains to be seen.

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