As immigrants grow scarce, farmers are turning to robots to harvest and process their crops.
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.
Driscoll’s, the berry titan based in Watsonville, California, has invested in several robotic strawberry harvesting startups, in- cluding Agrobot, which uses imaging technology to assess a berry’s ripeness before it is harvested. It is currently in test phase.
Bartley Walker, whose family business rents and sells tractors, now offers a robotic hoeing machine with a detection camera capable of identifying the pesky weeds that sprout between row crops like broccoli and cauliflower.
“The weeder is not as precise as a human with a hoe,” Walker said, “but it extracts 90 percent of the weeds.” What is more, one machine replaces 11 workers.
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.
On Oct. 4, an automated harvesting machine at Taylor Farms in Salinas, Calif., uses a high pressure water stream to cut romaine lettuce heads. Taylor Farms 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.