Tom Cotton's Robots Won't Replace Immigrant Farm Labor Soon

(Bloomberg View) -- American farms are being pinched by a tightening labor market, a long decline in the number of undocumented migrants, and more aggressive immigration enforcement in the nation’s interior. 

“All types of farms and ranches are facing labor shortages, but the problem is critical in the fruit and vegetable sector where farmers are more dependent on hand-harvesting,” said Zippy Duvall, the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, in an email. “Even with all the mechanization and innovation that has happened in agriculture, there are certain types of farm work, such as weeding or picking produce for the fresh market, that machines can’t do as well as human hands.”

A 2017 paper on immigration and farm labor by economist Philip Martin of the University of California, Davis, backs up that assessment. “The average number of jobs for hired workers on farms has been relatively stable at about 1.3 million over the past several decades,” Martin writes, “as the expansion of labor-intensive commodities such as strawberries creates new jobs to replace those lost as labor-saving mechanization eliminates jobs in commodities such as raisin grapes.”

Harvesting California’s 40,000 acres of strawberries requires about 60,000 workers, most of whom were born in Mexico. Nationwide, Pew estimates that about one-quarter of farm laborers are undocumented. 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been auditing big farms in California’s Central Valley, driving workers away. It’s unclear whether the audits are an act of retaliation for the state’s sanctuary policies for immigrants or are simply an outgrowth of the Donald Trump administration’s more aggressive enforcement overall.

An ICE spokesman told the Fresno Bee last month that recent farm raids were part of a strategy “focused on protecting jobs for U.S. citizens and others who are lawfully employed, eliminating unfair competitive advantages for companies that hire an illegal workforce, and strengthening public safety and national security.”

Although Big Agriculture wears a red MAGA hat, Trump’s policies seem destined to test the theory that American workers will supplant undocumented immigrants when the latter are driven from their jobs.

There is scant evidence to support the notion. The U.S. is nearing full employment, while agriculture jobs remain demanding work for low pay. “By working about 200 days or 1,600 hours a year at $10 an hour, long-season and full-year farm workers can earn $15,000 to $20,000 a year,” Martin wrote. American farms have relied on foreign labor at least since before World War II, when the Bracero Program was instituted by the federal government to bring Mexican workers to American farms.  

When Alabama and Georgia cracked down on undocumented labor in 2011, when unemployment was high, crops rotted in the fields. Farms lost millions in sales. (A University of Georgia study pegged losses in that state at $140 million due to a shortage of 5,000 workers.) The native American workers never did materialize. Courts eventually blocked key elements of the laws.

Republican Tom Cotton of Arkansas, the Senate’s leading nativist, says he has an answer: Robots. “I think it’s certainly critical that we reduce unskilled and low-skilled workers,” he told Vox. It can’t simultaneously be true, Cotton said, “that we need both more unskilled and low-skilled workers” and that “robots are going to take all the jobs.”

Labor shortages -- and, in California, a rising minimum wage -- have indeed been driving agricultural innovation. The annual World Ag Expo in Tulare, California, attracts about 100,000 visitors. This year’s expo, in February, featured aerial drones, a robot orchard sprayer that looks like a Storm Trooper transport, and other high-tech offerings. Farmers are “having problems getting the labor they need,” said Praveen Penmetsa, chief executive of Motivo Engineering, as he demonstrated a robotic arm that picked up an onion from one place and set it down in another.

But Cotton’s robot talk is mostly “silly,” said University of California, Berkeley, economist Gordon Rausser in a telephone interview. Much of American agriculture -- corn, soybeans, wheat -- was mechanized long before the robots invaded. In recent years, processing plants and packaging houses have automated significantly. But most fruits and vegetables in the field remain stubbornly dependent on human hands.

In the U.K. last year, a small experimental farm planted and harvested its crop of barley using exclusively robot labor. The yield was lower than a conventional farm would have produced and the costs higher than if humans had performed the labor.

Yes, the experiment does point in the direction of a robotic future. However, the efforts by Trump and Cotton to deport more undocumented immigrants and restrict others from coming legally are very much in the present.

“I am afraid that Sen Cotton may have heard what’s going on in the lab, but there is still a big gap between the lab and the field,” said UC Berkeley economist David Zilberman, via email. “Actually, there is ongoing research to automate harvesting of blueberries, strawberries, apples and other crops, but it is really difficult. Today, especially when it comes to whole fruit for human consumption, robots and advanced technologies still cannot maintain quality.”

Farmers squeezed between labor shortages and ICE raids can’t count on robots -- or Trump or Cotton -- to rescue the harvest.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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