Fruit Growers, It’s Time to Mechanize or Die Trying [Opinion]

If you’re into conspiracies, you might be interested to know that I have stumbled onto a doozy. And it looks like this one might extend all the way up into the highest reaches of — as I’m sure any of you paranoid anti-government farmers have already surmised — USDA.


Like most doing research today, I start with a perusal of the internet. The topic was the subject of American Fruit Grower® and Western Fruit Grower® magazines’ June cover story.

The paper that caught my eye was “Alternatives to Immigrant Labor?” It was published by The Center for Immigration Studies, who some have accused of being anti-ag, but one of the authors is Jim Thompson, a retired University of California, Davis ag engineer who I have interviewed, and what he writes is good enough for me. Its introduction began with a statement from the California Farm Bureau Federation: “Without an adequate supply of workers to fill seasonal labor-intensive tasks such as harvesting, U.S. growers will become uncompetitive and be forced to reduce production of labor-intensive crops.”

Nothing new there, I thought, and then I looked at the top of the page for the year it was published: 2000. Oh great, it was worse than I thought, bringing one of my Sunday School Bible quotes to the fore: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

About the only surprise in the piece was that the authors noted that in 1979, then-USDA Secretary Bob Bergland stated: “I will not put federal money into any project that reduces the need for farm labor.” This policy, the authors state, supported an anti-mechanization movement so intense at the time, it brought a lawsuit against the University of California for using public funds to conduct mechanization research, though that lawsuit was later dismissed.

But even worse, “the Bergland policy has gradually ended the availability of public funding for research and development projects focused on reducing the cost and increasing the labor productivity for harvesting horticultural crops. Today, USDA has only one poorly funded harvest mechanization project. Higher wages can be paid when workers are much more productive, but since 1979 the Bergland policy also has reduced that opportunity.”

That last statement should not be lost on those of you who maintain increasing the use of mechanization will leave workers behind.

Those authors said back then growers had three choices, the same ones you have today: maintain the status quo, mechanize, or quit growing fresh fruit. And their final conclusion is kind of chilling, when you consider their “today” was nearly two decades ago: “The reasons to use mechanical harvesting are the same today as they were in the past, and the justifications for commercial implementation are even stronger today. Action needs to be initiated soon, at the federal level, to help these commodities become labor efficient and farmers to become low-cost producers.”