Immigrant workers are preparing for automation in agriculture

Inside Taylor Farms’ massive warehouse in Salinas, California, millions of pounds of lettuce, cabbage and spinach are processed each day. Vegetables from nearby fields are sent here to get chopped, washed, dried and packaged. When they’re ready for packing, a yellow robotic arm called a Quik Pick & Pack uses suction to pick up a 5-lb bag of greens and carefully place it in a box with the help of cameras and sensors. This job used to be done by humans.

In another room, nine large robotic arms stack boxes into pallets, which are then shipped off to restaurants, schools and commissaries. Just two years ago, people did the stacking. But now, human workers are monitoring the robots.

Today, American agriculture businesses are turning to automation — using computerized machines to take on tasks in production that used to be done by humans — as a way to alleviate a nationwide farmworker shortage. Immigrant workers are getting education and training to ensure they won’t be left behind.

The work has gotten easier, to an extent: Now, machines do most of the heavy lifting. However, other workers are concerned automation will eliminate the need for their jobs.

Solution to worker shortage or a scourge?
The turn to automation in the agriculture industry has been spurred, in part, by worker shortages. A recent survey of California farmworkers found that 56% of businesses reported difficulty recruiting workers to harvest and process their crops. Existing farmworkers are getting older, and there isn’t a younger generation in the US willing to replace them. Meanwhile, the flow of immigrants from Mexico, historically a major source of farm labor, is decreasing.

To alleviate the shortage, companies have increased wages. But the work both in the field and inside plants is not attractive: It’s tedious, difficult and often seasonal. And while more agriculture businesses are using a visa program that allows them to bring in temporary overseas workers, it’s not enough. The Trump administration’s restrictions on immigration are compounding the problem, according to industry experts.

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