The End of Farm Labor as We Know It [Opinion]
A gent who works for one of the largest apple growers in the U.S. – and thus the world – told me last month that he had gotten uncomfortably late in October this year and still had about 60,000 bins of apples on the trees. It made me shudder, and this was after he told me they’d thankfully been successfully harvested.
The grower said it took a little creativity, namely sourcing workers just as they finished picking other orchards in the region who could stay and pitch in. I couldn’t help thinking that in another decade or so, that story wouldn’t have such a happy ending.
I say that because the traditional source of laborers, Mexico, isn’t going to be supplying them anymore. It’s not that these folks won’t be leaving Mexico, they won’t be in Mexico at all. That’s because they were never born.
Mexican birth rates are in a free fall, from nearly seven children per mom in the 1960s to just more than two today, about the same as the U.S. Twenty years from now, the United Nations predicts Mexico will have the lower rate of the two.
One of the terrific things about my job is I travel around this great country talking with and listening to a lot of really smart people. One was at a conference our company, Meister Media Worldwide, held down in Arizona in October, PrecisionAg® Vision Conference. A large-acreage vegetable grower said he was keenly interested in robotic harvesters – and investing in one of th companies who plan to manufacture them – not so much to save money, but to be able to harvest crops at all.
The people who’ve traditionally harvested the crops simply won’t be available. Citing the low birth rates and the projections for the future, he summed up the situation colorfully: “That cake is baked.”
H-2A or no H-2A, the workers won’t be coming. They’re not there.
I got to thinking about the issue again last month at yet another conference American Fruit Grower® and Western Fruit Grower® host each year, FruitGrowerConnectSM, which was held at a resort in Park City, UT. We have a grower roundtable to discuss issues of concern, and – you guessed it – the hot topic was labor. But this year was different, as growers who thought they had it difficult now began to ponder a future of no workers at all coming from Mexico.
The consensus on the timing was about 10 to 15 years. That’s about how long growers I surveyed figured they had before they had to change the way they farm.
Of course, waiting until you have to change isn’t the wisest course of action. The time is now to start thinking about what you will do without such workers. Most agree mechanization will be the way.
Keep your eyes peeled as technological development in this area is picking up speed exponentially. We’ll be covering this closely with our PrecisionAg® Specialty Crops initiative in the coming months. And several of the growers I talked to recommended a trip to Europe as they’re a bit ahead of us. Not more technologically savvy, it’s just that growers there faced worker shortages years earlier. Necessity is the mother of invention.