Without Mexican Workers, California’s Ag Industry Is Relentlessly Mechanizing

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Immigration from Mexico—both legal and illegal—has been declining for over a decade. In California, that means farmers are increasingly turning to automation instead of human pickers:

Driscoll’s is so secretive about its robotic strawberry picker it won’t let photographers within telephoto range of it. But if you do get a peek, you won’t see anything humanoid or space-aged. AgroBot is still more John Deere than C-3PO — a boxy contraption moving in fits and starts, with its computer-driven sensors, graspers and cutters missing 1 in 3 berries.

….Driscoll’s, which grows berries in nearly two dozen countries and is the world’s top berry grower, already is moving its berries to table-top troughs, where they are easier for both human and machines to pick, as it has done over the last decade in Australia and Europe. “We don’t see — no matter what happens — that the labor problem will be solved,” said Soren Bjorn, president of Driscoll’s of the Americas.

AgroBot is still a prototype, but it’s getting better. And lots of other crops have already been mechanized:

Vast areas of the Central Valley have switched from labor intensive crops such as grapes or vegetables to almonds, which are mechanically shaken from the tree. The high-value wine grape industry has re-engineered the bulk of its vineyards to allow machines to span the vines like a monorail and strip them of grape clusters or leaves.

….It may be too late to mechanize asparagus. The crop, among the most labor-intensive in the state, has gradually shifted to Mexico since trade barriers made it cheaper to grow there, casting a nostalgic pall over Stockton’s asparagus festival.

This is what happens when immigration slows: jobs are either mechanized or offshored. Perhaps that was inevitable anyway. But if Donald Trump does build a wall and cut down substantially on illegal immigration, it’s unlikely to have more than a marginal effect on low-wage native workers. It will just mean more robots in the fields.

On the other hand, it will also mean we have fewer people in the US speaking Spanish. And that’s really the whole point, isn’t it?

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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