NY Times: Fewer Illegal Farmworkers Encourages Innovation, Higher Productivity in Agriculture

The Deer & Co. John Deere 8R fully autonomous tractor is displayed ahead of the Consumer E
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President Donald Trump’s low-migration policies have helped push U.S. farms to invest in a “revolutionary” new generation of labor-saving, wage-enhancing farm robots, according to the New York Times.

Under the headline, “Illegal Immigration Is Down, Changing the Face of California Farms,” the newspaper wrote:

The new demographic reality has sent farmers scrambling to bring in more highly paid foreign workers on temporary guest-worker visas, experiment with automation wherever they can and even replace crops with less labor-intensive alternatives.

“Back in the day, you had people galore,” said Vanessa Quinlan, director of human resources at Sabor Farms

“We are living on borrowed time,” said Dave Puglia, the president of the Western Growers trade association, a major farm lobby in the western United States. “I want half the produce harvest mechanized in 10 years — there’s no other solution,” he told the New York Times.

More automation and more robots mean that American workers and companies can get more work done in less time — and so earn higher wages for themselves and their families.

But many specialty-crop producers — and Wall Street — are still hoping for a cheap-labor bailout from the feds. For example, Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) owns an orchard and has pushed hard for the passage of the misnamed Farm Workforce Modernization Act. The legislation would give orchard owners access to far more low-wage migrant labor in exchange for allowing those migrant workers to get green cards and vote in subsequent elections.

For decades, the agriculture companies that produce fresh produce and specialty crops — apples, strawberries, raspberries, and asparagus, to name a few examples — were able to avoid investment in automation and instead rely on stoop labor. This policy was possible because the farm-community legislators, the federal government, and many left-wing progressives allowed them to employ an unlimited stream of illegal migrants.

The result is that some crops largely disappeared from U.S. fields as domestic producers were outcompeted by farms in Mexico with even cheaper labor. In Europe, where wages are much higher, European tech companies have developed a wide range of machines and robots to harvest their crops, such as asparagus and leeks:

But U.S. fresh-produce companies are still using stoop labor — often with cheerleading from Democrats:

U.S. farm companies are also losing market share to high-tech, urban “vertical farms” which grow produce in warehouses with artificial light:

In the last decade, farm companies have tried to delay the inevitable by importing many H-2A visa workers to minimize their labor costs.

But Democrats dislike the H-2A visa program because most of the workers go home without trying to become Democrat-voting citizens, so Democrats in D.C. and state capitals have allowed H-2A wages and benefits to rise far above the price of illegals. “We need real immigration reform in this country for a pathway to citizenship,” Labor Secretary Mary Walsh told a House committee on May 17. “Not H-2B visas, H-2A visas, not those visas — that’s not immigration.”

Many Republicans also urge more cheap labor for the benefit of their local donors — even though the main effect of that policy is to deliver more labor, investment, and wealth to the coastal cities. “We have people that need workers,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) told MSNBC in April. “Whether it’s physicians, engineers, or laborers in factories or fields, there is a growing demand.”

Most of the new illegal migrants waived in during 2021 and 2022 by Biden’s loose border policies are heading to join relatives in major cities. For example, the New York Times reported on May 30 about the routine abuse of migrant workers in New York’s construction industry:

In 2018, Marco Martínez, a teenager newly arrived from Ecuador, died after being crushed against a ceiling by a mechanical lift. A year later, Michael Daves, who was living in a men’s shelter and struggling with substance abuse, died after falling through a hole.

And now Yonin Pineda, a 29-year-old from Guatemala, lies unconscious and gravely injured. His diligent Mexican foreman, Mauricio Sánchez, 41, is sprawled dead beside him, his face mangled, his chest torn open, his blood staining broken concrete.

All three of the dead laborers lived on the city’s margins: Two were undocumented immigrants, one a homeless man. Only the last death received any local news coverage, and it was brief. None of the men had union representation.

So the post-Trump reduction in migration leaves the U.S. production of many specialized crops crippled by their decades-long, short-sighted, government-enabled addiction to cheap labor.

The so-called “row crop” sector of U.S. agriculture is highly advanced and allows each man to produce a huge amount of product each day. For example, the cotton crop:

Rising wages are forcing the dairy sector to invest in more robots. For example, Rural Migration News reported in April that:

Idaho’s dairy industry is expanding. In 2020, some 280 dairies with an average 7,300 employees were reported to the QCEW, an average 26 for each dairy that had an average 2,000 to 2,500 cows. Idaho has about 650,000 dairy cows and, using robotics and other technology, the cow-worker ratio is often 100 or more.  Average weekly wages in dairy farming were $750 in 2020, up 22 percent from $615 in 2015.

U.S. meatpackers are also behind foreign competitors, Rural Migration News reported in January 2021:

Meatpacking automation is more advanced in China and Europe. Danish Crown has a more automated pork processing plant in Horsens [Denmark] that uses robots to kill, bleed, and remove meat from carcasses. At Danish Crown, the number of hogs processed per worker per week, 60, is double the 30 hogs per worker per week in Smithfield plants. Prestage Farms in Eagle Grove, Iowa has opened an automated pork processing plant using European equipment with similar 60 hogs per week per worker productivity.

And the “fresh produce” specialty crop sector lags far behind other U.S. economic sectors in automation.

Only about 20 percent of the specialty crop harvest will be automated by 2025, according to a report by the Western Growers Association. However, the group’s goal is “automating 50 percent of the harvest in the U.S.” by 2031, the report said.

“80% of growers invested in the automation of pre-harvest activities, and 55% in harvest assist devices, but only 30% in harvesting,” Rural Migration News reported in March 2022.

One of the biggest crops — strawberries — utilizes zero automation in harvesting. However, a few companies are making progress:

Unsurprisingly, the illegal migrants feel threatened by the new wave of robots and better-paid H-2A visa workers.

José Luis Hernández from Ejutla in Oaxaca [in Mexico] crossed into the United States when they were barely in their teens, over 15 years ago. Now they live in Stockton, working mostly on the vineyards in Lodi and Napa … He worries about the future. “It scares me that they are coming with H-2As and also with robots,” he said. “That’s going to take us down.”

Meanwhile, China is also developing high-tech farms:


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