As im­mi­grants grow scarce, agri­cul­ture turns to robots

Star-Telegram (Sunday) - - Business - BY MIRIAM JOR­DAN New York Times

As a boy, Abel Mon­toya re­mem­bers his fa­ther ar­riv­ing home from the let­tuce fields each evening, the pic­ture of ex­haus­tion, mud caked knee-high on his trousers. “Dad wanted me to stay away from man­ual la­bor. He was keen for me to stick to the books,” Mon­toya said. So he did, and went to college.

Yet Mon­toya, a 28-yearold im­mi­grant’s son, re­cently took a job at a let­tuce-pack­ing fa­cil­ity, where it is wet, loud, freez­ing – and much of the work is phys­i­cally tax­ing, even mind-numb­ing.

Now, though, he can del­e­gate some of the worst work to robots.

Mon­toya is among a new gen­er­a­tion of farm­work­ers here at Tay­lor Farms, one of the world’s largest pro­duc­ers and sell­ers of fresh-cut veg­eta­bles, which re­cently un­veiled a fleet of robots de­signed to re­place hu­mans – one of the agri­cul­ture in­dus­try’s lat­est an­swers to a di­min­ish­ing sup­ply of im­mi­grant la­bor.

The smart ma­chines can as­sem­ble 60 to 80 salad bags a minute, dou­ble the out­put of a worker.

En­list­ing robots made sound eco­nomic sense, Tay­lor Farms of­fi­cials said, for a com­pany seek­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on Amer­i­cans’ in­sa­tiable ap­petite for healthy fare at a time when it can­not re­cruit enough peo­ple to work in the fields or the fac­tory.

A decade ago, peo­ple lined up by the hun­dreds for jobs at pack­ing houses in Cal­i­for­nia and Ari­zona dur­ing the let­tuce sea­son. No more.

“Our work­force is get­ting older,” said Mark Bor­man, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of Tay­lor Farms. “We aren’t at­tract­ing young peo­ple to our in­dus­try. We aren’t get­ting an in­flux of im­mi­grants. How do we deal with that? In­no­va­tion.”

Mov­ing up the tech­nol­ogy lad­der cre­ates higher-skilled po­si­tions that can at­tract young peo­ple such as Mon­toya, who is fin­ish­ing a com­puter sci­ence de­gree, and bol­ster re­ten­tion of vet­eran em­ploy­ees who re­ceive new train­ing to ad­vance their ca­reers.

“We are mak­ing bet­ter jobs that we hope ap­peal to a broader range of peo­ple,” Bor­man said.

In a 2017 sur­vey of farm­ers by the Cal­i­for­nia Farm Bureau Fed­er­a­tion, 55 per­cent re­ported la­bor short­ages and the fig­ure was nearly 70 per­cent for those who de­pend on sea­sonal work­ers. Wage in­creases in re­cent years have not com­pen­sated for the short­fall, grow­ers said.

Tay­lor Farms brings in about 200 work­ers a year on H-2A guest worker visas, about 10 per­cent of its sea­sonal la­bor force. “The pro­gram is not al­ways de­pend­able and our items are per­ish­able,” said Chris Rot­ticci, who runs the har­vest au­to­ma­tion di­vi­sion of Tay­lor Farms, which is also look­ing for ways to re­place hu­mans. “But we have to do it. We don’t have enough peo­ple.”

Ide­ally, grow­ers say, Congress would pass a bill to le­gal­ize farm­work­ers in the coun­try il­le­gally and en­cour­age them to stay in the fields, as well as in­clude pro­vi­sions to en­sure a steady flow of sea­sonal work­ers who could come and go with rel­a­tive ease.

Cal­i­for­nia’s $54 bil­lion agri­cul­tural in­dus­try can­not af­ford to wait. As the coun­try’s epi­cen­ter of both tech­nol­ogy and agri­cul­ture, the state is lead­ing the move to au­to­mate in the fields and pack­ing plants.

About 60 per­cent of the ro­maine let­tuce and half of all cab­bage and cel­ery pro­duced by Tay­lor Farms are har­vested with au­to­mated sys­tems. The com­pany has part­nered with an in­no­va­tion firm, which pre­vi­ously fo­cused on au­to­mated ve­hi­cle assem­bly, to de­velop a ma­chine to be­gin har­vest­ing broc­coli and ice­berg let­tuce within two years.

All told, the com­pany plans to dou­ble the num­ber of au­to­mated har­vesters, which cost about $ 750,000 each, in the fields each year – un­til nearly ev­ery­thing can be ma­chine-picked.

Wheat, soy­bean and cot­ton crops have long used au­to­ma­tion. Del­i­cate fruit, like peaches, plums and rasp­ber­ries, as well as veg­eta­bles like as­para­gus and fen­nel, will re­main la­bor in­ten­sive for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

It is dif­fi­cult to re­place the hu­man eye and hand – and tech­nol­ogy is still in its in­fancy.

“It’s go­ing to take years to de­velop tech­nol­ogy that can rec­og­nize when it’s the right time to har­vest our pro­duce and do it without bruis­ing the pro­duce,” said Tom Nas­sif, pres­i­dent of Western Grow­ers, a large as­so­ci­a­tion that rep­re­sents agri­cul­tural con­cerns in Ari­zona, Cal­i­for­nia, Colorado and New Mex­ico.

Inside the pro­cess­ing plant in Sali­nas, where the tem­per­a­ture hov­ers around 33 de­grees Fahren­heit, work­ers don heavy coats un­der their work smocks and head­bands un­der their hard hats to keep their ears warm. On their hands, they wear two lay­ers of gloves.

On a re­cent af­ter­noon, fork­lift driv­ers scur­ried about de­liv­er­ing bins of let­tuce to ma­chines inside the plant, where it was cut ac­cord­ing to spec­i­fi­ca­tion, and washed. Dozens of work­ers ran spin­ners the size of in­dus­trial dry­ers that re­moved ex­cess water from the greens.

At sev­eral sta­tions, a pair of robots with yel­low arms that end with a round suc­tion head gripped 5-pound pack­ages of shred­ded let­tuce, one by one, and placed them into boxes mov­ing on a belt. Nearby, larger robots did the back­break­ing, repet­i­tive work of lift­ing and stack­ing filledup car­tons.

Maria Guadalupe, 43, a re­cent grad­u­ate of the com­pany-spon­sored tech­nol­ogy course, has gone from pack­ing bagged sal­ads into boxes to set­ting up and mon­i­tor­ing robots that do her old job.

“This is much bet­ter work,” she said above the din of the pro­duc­tion floor.

Cur­rently, nine robots are in use at the Sali­nas plant; most la­bor is still per­formed pre­dom­i­nantly by hu­mans.

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