Farmers across the US state of California are increasingly turning to automation tools in the face of an acute shortage in labor.
The shortage is so severe that produce is sometimes left in the fields, and many farmers are switching from labor-intensive crops, such as grapes or vegetables, to less intensive produce, like almonds.
“California will have to remake its fields like it did its factories or risk losing entire crops,” reported the Los Angeles Times, citing economists.
Crews of 20 to 30 workers are now being replaced by one machine, according to Mary Alameda, a student of agriculture communication in California Polytechnic State University. “Take for example the Splat 2.0, the Mantis Thinning Rover, operated by one person, can swiftly hoe and thin a field of leafy greens, which once required dozens of workers to tend,” she wrote in her blog post.
Farm output has also shrunk along with the labor force. Last year, for example, farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta area harvested only 8,000 acres of the signature spear, compared to 37,000 acres in 2000.
In a hearing before the House Agriculture Committee a week ago, Paul Heller, Vice President of Wonderful Citrus, testified that the industry had lost about 140,000 foreign workers over the last five years nationally, causing labor costs to rise as much as US$8,400 per acre.
Analysts blame the talent shortage on a drop in the number of Mexican immigrants coming to the US. More Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico from the US than have migrated here since the end of the Great Recession, according to a Pew Research Center analysis released in 2015.
Labor shortage should be far worse in interior states. Reports say that approximately 7% of planted fields in the United States are typically not harvested each year.