Grapes, berries and robots: is Silicon Valley coming for farm workers jobs?

The robots have arrived in California’s fields. This summer, a self-driving tractor was spotted working rows of vines in Napa valley. Described as resembling a “souped-up golf cart,” the tractor runs on an electric battery and can be operated remotely with an app.

Farther south, strawberry harvesting robots have been picking fruit. Complete with wheels, clipper-tipped arms, and a catchment tray, its maker claims the machine can pick almost as many berries as a human with 95% accuracy.

The global ag-tech revolution has accelerated in recent years as the climate crisis puts a strain on farmers and crops, and the pandemic continues to disrupt the workforce on which the industry depends. In California, where much of this technology is being developed and tested, that’s raised complex questions for the state’s farm workers.

Not all workers view automation as a bad thing, advocates say, because it has the potential to alleviate difficult aspects of the job. But they also fear the rush to automate is being done without their input and in a way that privileges farm owners, tech developers, and investors without considering the consequences for workers.

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