California growers trying to replace diminishing farm workers with robots

July 21, 2017

Faced with a shrinking population of immigrant farm workers, California growers are racing to adopt technological innovations that will mechanically pick crops. [LA Times]

Over much of the past decade, Mexican immigrants have been returning to Mexico at a faster rate than they have been arriving in the United States, according to a Pew Research study. Family reunification, immigration crackdowns and new employment opportunities south of the border are some of the reasons for the shift in immigration.

Now, California growers are struggling to fill the nearly 500,000 farm labor jobs in the state. Growers are increasingly relying on foreign guest workers, having recruited 11,000 last year, which marked a five-fold jump over five years.

Likewise, growers are paying farm workers higher wages and are even starting to roll out benefits packages for their laborers.

Many Central Valley growers are responding to the worker shortage by switching from labor intensive crops, like grapes and vegetables, to almonds, which are mechanically shaken from trees. Asparagus grows are often moving to Mexico, where it is cheaper to farm. Thus far, machines are failing to duplicate human judgment and dexterity in harvesting asparagus.

But, other crops are becoming increasingly picked by machines. The wine industry has reengineered the bulk of its vineyards to enable machines, which span vines like a monorail, to strip them of grape clusters or leaves.

The Watsonville-based berries company Driscoll’s is backing the innovation of a berry picking machine called the AgroBot. Developed by a Spanish inventor, the AgroBot uses computer-driven sensors, graspers and cutters to pick berries. During trial runs in Camarillo this spring, the AgroBot picked more than 50 percent of the ripe berries.

In the lettuce industry, machines are being developed to slice heads and leaves and to thin the fields. The computer-guided See and Spray machine eliminates the need for workers to pull seedlings over with a hoe in order to create optimal spacing. The machine is one of five robotic thinners currently deployed over thousands of acres of summer lettuce in the Salinas Valley.

Small crews are still needed to thin the areas the machines miss, but the amount of hard labor, and particularly hoe strokes, needed to grow lettuce is decreasing.

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Blame the unions.Prison industries can not sell anytiing to anyone except tax supported public business i.e. Schools county offices etc. some states prisons are semi self supporting not Ca. They even buy their bread from commercial venders no more baking their own.

I’m not sure of the accuracy of CDCR of buying bread from outside vendors as two prisons still bake bread under PIA; Corcoran, and RJ Donovan with their main purpose of baking bread for CDCR as a whole. PIA also provides it’s own milk, coffee, poultry, beef, peanut butter and a ton of other products almost exclusively for CDCR’s consumption. If you’d like to see the complete list here’s a link:

And I think you contention it is somehow the “union’s” fault that PIA can’t or doesn’t sell to anyone but tax supported entities isn’t accurate either; why would any union cut off its nose despite its face? I think it has to do with fair trade more than anything else. PIA products could be sold far cheaper to the public then private industry products just because PIA doesn’t have to pay its “employees” minimum wage.

Well, perhaps it’s time for some REAL prison reform. Remember the road camps? We need to return to using the inmates who owe a debt to society, to work rather than simply do nothing….YES, most of them do nothing. They are a wonderful resource that not be under utilized.


The problem with people is they cannot engage in logic and become overwhelmed by emotions they cannot control-so the whole topic dissolves into sniping at one another. Sure, I want to reach into the backseat and smack them, but they aren’t kids anymore–and grown ups ought to be able to have a measured response. People also have very rigid thinking. Assuming a farm worker can only do this sort of work–and nothing else–is not what I would call innovative reasoning. I have a friend who swore–when he went and picked with his parents for the first time–that he would never do that work. He went on to become a registered nurse and retired his folks as early as was possible.

We absolutely should be very happy as a society that technology has come this far. Food would become less expensive and fields could be worked around the clock without injury or exhaustion.Anything new that comes up–that might be change or innovation–causes the majority of people to cast doom on the whole thing. That is not how we evolve as a species. The Dunning-Kruger Effect strikes again.

Of course it’s back breaking work. Most Americans would never do that kind of work.Kudos to those who are willing. Having said that, this is the perfect type work for the convicted felon…perhaps it might help reduce the amount of recidivism that currently plagues our criminal justice system;.

BTW…remember when the computer, the cell phone, the internet and social media technology was lauded in much the same way? In many ways technology is not always a panacea.

Bring it on! It’s another reason to limit human population. That should satisfy those that worry (falsely) about population and climate change. In any case, less of humanity would probably be a good thing.

This is promising technology, and we should make all farmers contribute to the research and development of robotic farm labor.

With all due respect, if we allow illegal aliens into the USA to work the crops, we have their children, who are of high need, flooding and overwhelming our public schools.

If we allow illegal aliens into the USA to work the crops, we have hospitals which are overrun, preventing legal citizens from getting the help they deserve.

If we allow illegal aliens into the USA to work the crops, our social safety net gets stretches so thin that deserving Americans who need help, cannot hope to be assisted by the very programs their taxes funded.

Lastly, If we allow illegal aliens into the USA to work the crops, then our national identity is lost forever, against the biggest percentage of foreign-born people here in our nation’s history, with no chance to assimilate.

Farmers need to be made to fund this research and development of robotic farm labor, it is only right, and the Big Ag farm owners have been hoisting the true cost of their labor source onto taxpayers for too long. Use ICE to raid their fields, and civil forfeiture for farmers hiring illegal aliens to exploit their profits.

“Lastly, If we allow illegal aliens into the USA to work the crops, then our national identity is lost forever, against the biggest percentage of foreign-born people here in our nation’s history, with no chance to assimilate.”

That’s rich! And coming from a person whos country has no national identity without the millions upon millions of people that were foreign born that came here in the first place. And if there is a true national identity, one that is directly attributed to us by the world and accurate to the “T”? It’s one of a corporate culture that has nothing to do with either race, origin or national identity.

This country based and founded upon the immoral Manifest Destiny Doctrine and has no place talking about a national identity other than one based on theft, murder and genocide.

The only reason they will not have the chance to assimilate is because we won’t allow them to for nothing but political reasons!

And almost as rich…?

“If we allow illegal aliens into the USA to work the crops, our social safety net gets stretches so thin that deserving Americans who need help, cannot hope to be assisted by the very programs their taxes funded.”

What do you think the automation of the countries jobs will do? There are many studies that all show as much as 40% of American jobs will be lost in the next 15 years due to automation. The safety nets you speak of will not only be stretched but bankrupted, especially with the conservative norm of cutting from those services first to further their defense spending first agenda.

Assimilate those who are working and not criminals! Let them become tax paying citizens. They will benefit and this country will only become stronger….

Begs the question of what will happen when robots can build a house, repair a car, or keep your books. Our socioeconomic system hinges upon people being able to sell their labor and turn around and buy stuff. It’s naïve to think that the technology won’t one day improve and displace most jobs. For better or worse everything is soon going to change.

Eagerly waiting for a robot that can sit on it lazy a$$, we already have plenty of those locally and in Sacramento. Should cost us taxpayers less both locally and in government and we can also just cut their power source when they screw us.

History repeating itself, same thing happened with the advent of the cotton picker, a labor force with no where to labor:(

A lesson could be learned from that, what to do with the illegal immigrant labor force when the need for them dissipates with more and more computerized robotic planting/picking methods:(

How about the growers be given a subsidy in the form of cheap prison labor? Or would this be considered cruel and unusual punishment for a convicted felon. The enormous prison population should be working to pay their debt to society rather than just being warehoused…it’s time for a much needed change.

Can’t do that. Private corporations have tried to work their way into CDCR and it has been pretty much an abysmal failure. Ever heard of a brand of jeans and shirts called “Prison Blues”? Yep, once manufactured in CDCR by convicts but from I understand correctional staff wanted too much control over it and then Prison Industries wanted too much of the pie and it moved on to Oregon where it’s been a great boon for the convicts in that state.

CDCR and Prison Industries ALWAYS want way too much control and revenue from any business venture that would benefit convicts. The biggest culprit is Prison Industries though; go to you local court house and I would venture a guess that the majority of the furniture (desks, chairs, etc.) were made in the furniture shop at the Chino East facility at a huge profit.

Convicts would love the opportunity to work for a wage and the opportunity to be outside all day (outside the walls) but the general public would have a shit fit if just one of them walked off!

And Pelican1, every time you hear of a wild land fire raging in California you can bet your conservative ass convict labor is right there, first in and last out! And I love the fact you bitch about them not working off their debt to society when you haven’t a clue about life inside those “walls” and when the courts have decided the payment due is being locked up and the future ire of folks like you even when their debt has been paid! Payment is rendered in full when the convict has completed his or her sentence and completes his or her term of parole! Get that! All else is just pure gravy…

You weren’t comprehending! I suggested a subsidy in the form of prison labor. it would replace any current government subsidy the grower is currently getting. The inmates would be paid the same rate as the inmate firefighters…$2.00 a day.

It would be a win-win for all concerned.

BTW, 4000, inmates that fight fires is only a fraction of the 130,000 inmates currently be warehoused at the taxpayers expense.

Enough with the belly aching farmers. Pay a fair days wages and STFU already. I have to pay my legal American citizen employees big time so they can survive and so should you. Stop looking for semi slave labor or robots (what a joke) and hire Americans.

Have you ever picked anything Ramb’? Have you ever gone out in one of those fields and bent your back to pick a bell pepper or cantaloupe, probably not. I did ONCE way back when and I can tell you this, 99.999999999% of Americans COULDN”T do it. I couldn’t and at the time I was a young buck, strong, capable and WILLING! One day is what I lasted, that’s it! It’s hard work, very hard and I appreciate those immigrant workers (documented or otherwise) who go out and put food on the table for you and I.

If we did hire Americans you be back bitchin’ about the soar in the cost of food… As I’ve said before?

Bitch, bitch, bitch…

I agree with you. It’s hard work and we can’t expect a work force to be available forever. That is why robotics to ease the hardship of this work is needed.

I’ve been working in construction since I was 15 years old. I’ve worked on asphalt crews in 110 degree weather. I’ve climbed 40 ft ladders 10 hours per day 7 days a week in order to make a living and feed my family.

I’ve spent more time working on my knees in one year than most people do their entire lives.

And yes…I’ve picked sugar beets in South Dakota in minus 30 degree weather for 3 seasons.

Agriculture is a great way to earn a living. If you work hard and develop certain skills you can live a very good life as a field employee.

Don’t be too smart by half Rams Fan.

And do not give the greedy farmer and farming industrial complex a pass. ENOUGH of the whining. Farmers should have to compete for good help within the written laws for employment and immigration just like everyone else.

Offer a decent wage with good retirement and health ins and they will apply.