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

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?