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, Reedley College held the official groundbreaking ceremony for the McClarty Center for Fine and Performing Arts. The new 24,000 square foot facility will attract talent and draw audiences from near and far. It will also provide students and faculty the much needed opportunity to showcase their talents and skills on campus. Harold gave a remarkable speech about his own life and impactthe college and the arts had on his upbringing.Click here to see what he had to say.
It got cold at the beginning of the month. There was a widespread freeze, but only various colder locations suffered any significant damage. As you can see in the picture below, the juvenile nectarines on the left are green and shiny, compared to the frost damaged nectarines on the right that are dark and dull looking. While we feel that the overall volume was not affected by the freeze, March-April is a worrisome time for us as we monitor for potential cold temperatures and hail events.
As grape vines awaken from dormancy, buds begin to form and swell until they open up and reveal green leaves and new growth. The opening of these buds is called bud break, a process that is currently happening in our table grape vineyards.
Sarah McClarty, our Chief Financial Officer, is featured in this month’s Western Grower & Shipper magazine as a WG Women Ambassador. Sarah is part of the first few graduates of WG Women, a women’s professional development program under the Western Growers umbrella. Before WG Women, Sarah worked to create a women’s group at HMC, which allows the women from across our organization to participate in networking, teambuilding, and volunteer opportunities. Because we are in the midst of Women’s History Month, this feature is extra special to us. Read the article here.
Our stone fruit orchards are moving right along. Juvenile fruit is growing on our trees, with nectarines pictured above. At the beginning of this week, we received just over an inch of precipitation on our farms, which included some hail. It’s a little early to determine the extent of the hail damage. We have not yet thinned our early season varietals, which sometimes gives us an opportunity to sort through the fruit on the trees and remove pieces that may have been damaged by hail.