Science fiction stories about the future generally go one of two ways: A dystopian hell where robots attack us (“The Terminator”) or a dystopian hell where robots attack us in space (“2001: A Space Odyssey.”) But now it’s time to separate science fiction from fact. As the labor crisis continues in agriculture, with common-sense immigration reform at a standstill and an aging workforce threatening the future supply of skilled labor, technology will be one of the saviors of the industry. In recent agricultural industry events—from FIRA USA, the first American version of the international ag robotics expo that was held in Fresno, to the Alliance for Food and Farming Safe Fruits and Veggies farm tour across the Central Valley, to the Organic Grower Summit held last month in Monterey, Calif.—the excitement about agtech was tempered by one recurring question: Does automation mean farmworkers will lose jobs? It’s a humane question, one based in the very worthy concern that individuals’ livelihoods would be eliminated by technology. It’s a variation on the dystopian theme that has populated our pop culture for decades.
The answer, thankfully, is no. In fact, in a scenario that might be counter-intuitive for a layperson— automation doesn’t replace workers, but it will actually improve workers’ quality of life by making their specific jobs easier and giving them better paying opportunities down the road. At FIRA, Hernan Hernandez, the Executive Director of the California Farmworker Foundation, gave a presentation on exactly this topic, noting that technology collaboration is the key to farmworker economic mobility as well as a way to improve safety on the job.
“When we were asking farmworkers ‘What do you think about these new machines? What do you see? What is the future?’ many of them were a bit scared—but the majority of them said these machines are great and all, but they will never replace us,” he said. “We’ve seen this in our data—a lot of farmworkers support technology. They think it is going to help them….In the Central Valley, the farmworkers’ average age is 45 years old. This is a workforce that, five to 10 years from now, is going to need technology to help them with their day-to-day activities.”
Hernandez says his organization is striving for a “free, fair, prosperous society” and he believes farmworker education to assist with career development is key. To that end, CFF is working with the Fresno-Merced Future of Food Innovation (F3) coalition, which in 2022 received a $65.1 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration—the largest grant ever received in the Central Valley—to accelerate the integration of technology and worker skills.
“One thing that I do want to emphasize is the workforce that we have today knows the fields,” he said. “They’ve lived in the fields, they’ve worked in the fields for 10-, 20-, 30-, 40-, 50 years. They know exactly what the terrain looks like and how to do the work. The one thing I would want to see is more farmworkers being included in the discussions so we can produce better technology that is safe.” That is exactly what is being done at HMC Farms in Kingsburg, Calif., according to Vice President Drew Ketelsen. “We will always need people—we cannot function without them,” he said. “But technology changes our ever-shifting landscape. Just like in many other industries, some job [categories] are lost and others are gained. There are new positions available in specialized areas in ag because of technology, allowing people the opportunity to pursue careers that didn’t exist five years ago.” The best comparison to make is to think of what
happened to switchboard operators as communications technology improved. Do those kinds of jobs exist in this day and age? Rarely. But did the mobile phone open up a whole new world of better-paying jobs in the same sector? Absolutely. Yesterday’s switchboard operator is today’s app designer.
Ketelsen’s team now operates everything from flying autonomous robots to optical grading and sorting machines to Burro self-driving wheelbarrows to field moisture probes to help HMC’s operations run more efficiently. “Ag technology is present in every aspect of our operation, from field preparation to harvest, packing to shipping, and everything in between,” he said. “Agtech doesn’t always look like a scene from the future, it can be as simple as adding a power system to reduce the manual human effort required of an activity—think of using a power drill rather than a screwdriver. Agtech is not about taking jobs away, it’s about making jobs better for employees.”
And while the cool factor of ag robots is undeniable, there is a very serious business motivation for Ketelsen’s push for technology at his operations.
“If agriculture does not innovate, the job loss will be astronomical. In contrast with slowly losing some jobs to innovation, all jobs will be immediately lost if farm acreage is replaced with non-labor-intensive crops, or pulled out of agriculture altogether,” he said. “The concern is about more than jobs; it is also about food security. Two-thirds of all the nation’s fruits and nuts come from California alone. If we cannot find a way to provide healthy and affordable food, everyone will suffer.” For Chris Rotticci, General Manager at Taylor Harvesting LLC, the fight for automation is on two fronts: toward off the future inevitable collapse of the ag labor system—and to make sure today’s industry workers stay safe. Why use a ladder when workers can harvest from a mechanized raised platform that moves along the orchard row?
“Here, our emphasis and goal of automation is to improve our ergonomics,” he said. “How do we improve that work environment for the person that is actually doing the work? If we can build convenience into their working environment where they can improve their throughout, that’s a win for everyone.” (Article Courtesy of Western Growers. Click here to view.)
Trees are now blossoming in many Central Valley tree fruit farms, with about half of our orchards in some stage of bloom. As blooms emerge, so do the first worries about the upcoming season’s crop. Blooms are very susceptible to being damaged or killed by below freezing temperatures. This month our area saw temperatures below freezing for a substantial amount of time, with some weather stations reporting lows of 27 degrees, we prepare our mitigation efforts. This mostly involves running irrigation to bring up warmer water from underground to provide a couple of extra degrees to the growing environment. In a few select areas, we have wind machines that we will run to bring warmer air down closer to the orchard floor. Some of the early varieties had a fairly high flower mortality rate, but as a reminder, we only need a small percentage of fruitlets to achieve a near full crop. Crop potential will depend on how evenly distributed viable flowers are on the tree. We remain optimistic that the damage to the early varieties will be minimal and we are thankful that the forecast has removed freezing temperatures as many more varieties have come into bloom.
This month California was in a drought and a flood at the exact same time. We are ending the year with 40% more precipitation than last year, but unfortunately our state does not have the infrastructure to capture all the water that is rapidly falling upon us. On average, a “normal” rain day in California is 0.25″-0.75″, but these atmospheric river storms are bringing 2″+ of water at a time. While our vineyards and orchards are equipped to handle the weather, many places are not. The reservoirs are currently at half capacity and snowpack is already up to 200% of average, and we still have several months of weather ahead of us. Even though a lot of water will be lost to the ocean rather than being captured, the reservoirs and groundwater will get a much-needed recharge which is a big positive.
Pruning continues in our California vineyards. All acreage is pre-pruned with a machine that removes top half of the last season’s growth mechanically. The final pruning cuts are then made by hand with crews that have been trained to leave the precise amount of wood to ensure the optimal health of the vine and growth for future crops. These cuts form “spurs” (the positions on the vine from which this year’s growth will come) along the “cordons” (the main lateral limbs coming from the trunk). Because grapes are a vine, the growth each year is rapid. A fully
mature vine will be pruned back to essentially the same place every season.
Grape shipments from Peru have resumed at normal levels. Last month’s social unrest created a delay in shipments, which caused tight supply conditions this month. As we move into February, we should see the situation change, with ample supply of both Peruvian and Chilean grapes.
The storms have ended for the time being and bloom is right around the corner. Things here are wet, but the fields need it and the sandier soils in our area are draining nicely. The charts above show that while we received a historic amount of rainfall, a lot of the water was unable to be captured in reservoirs and instead drained into the ocean. In 2014 Proposition 1: The Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act, a $7.5 billion bond dedicated $2.7 billion for the public benefits of new water storage projects, was passed. Since then, nothing has been built to improve our water infrastructure. The drought combined with the floods are shedding a new light on the legislative issues that have contributed to our current water crisis.
The conditions this winter have been ideal for growing tree fruit. Our orchards are currently tracking at 963 chill hours for the season. This is a 190-hour increase from this time last season. Chill hours can have different definitions, but we calculate our hours by measuring the time the temperature is 45 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Fruit trees need a specific number of chill hours each winter to regulate their growth. If a tree doesn’t experience enough chill hours in the winter the flower buds might not open at all in spring, or they might open unevenly Fortunately, we have already received plenty of chill hours for the season and any cold weather is appreciated until the buds break and blossoms emerge.