2005 December 06 Tuesday
Reduced Immigrant Labor Pushes Farmers To Technology

Necessity is a mother.

WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Stymied in efforts to ease labor problems through a guest worker immigration program, Washington state orchardists have been advised to seek relief through technology.


Meanwhile, orchard operators are looking at wireless networks, database applications, electronic weather systems and digital sensors as well as new mechanical harvesters and robot tractors to reduce their dependence on human labor.

Steve Faivre, a John Deere Co. representative, displayed a model of a driverless tractor that could operate around the clock to gather climate information, apply insecticides or mow weeds.

Automation will reduce the amount of labor on farms. Higher labor costs combined with advances in computing and communications technologies will accelerate the move toward automation.

Heightened border enforcement is having an effect on labor costs for California farmers.

California and Arizona farmers - producers of half the nation's citrus and 90 percent of its vegetables and nuts - are struggling with an acute labor shortage. The situation, worsened by crackdowns on illegal immigration since 9/11, also extends to other states and is no longer just a matter of possible price increases on lettuce, oranges, or almonds, farmers say. Rather, it is a turning point in the nation's ability to produce its own food - and possibly the loss of major parts of its agriculture industry.

The farmers face a basic problem: Illegal immigrants or "guest workers" on worker permits are still going to cost more than labor on farms in Mexico or Brazil. Only advances in technology will give industrialized nation farmers a chance of competing against countries which have longer growing seasons and much lower labor costs.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 December 06 11:43 PM  Immigration Economics

John S Bolton said at December 7, 2005 2:00 AM:

The growers complaining of 'labor shortage' are no more to be believed than rich women complaining of the 'help crisis' that started in 1941. How long have they been crying help crisis and labor shortage, 64 years running? They would have stopped building big houses and stopped planting crops that have to be hand picked, if these crises were not just propaganda by subsidy seekers. They want guest workers who are tied to their employers, and can't just move to the cities in as long as it takes to realize that the immigration laws aren't being enforced there. Why does America need feudalism, or a Bush or Kennedy dynasty, for that matter? Peonage and dynasties go together, like several generations of Fondas. So do antimerit immigration and affirmative action, we just need them because the top antimerit activists say so.

John S Bolton said at December 7, 2005 2:35 AM:

A genuine labor shortage, as occurred during the world wars, makes it easy, almost automatic, to raise productivity by even double digit rates across the board. It happens through the ditching of the least productive operations and occupational classifications, and the redirection of resources into much higher productivity uses. If a labor shortage existed, we would see it, and know it, from a very high increase in overall labor productivity. Instead, what is seen is the substitution of labor for capital and methods which use more intelligent workers at higher pay. More gardeners show up, and more engineers are unemployed, in the labor surplus economy of today, with its imposition of a sort of boycott on brains, and an enforced disuse of labor-saving equipment.

Invisible Scientist said at December 7, 2005 7:23 AM:

The farming labor shortage is a special case where the wages have always been very low. But for the United States as a whole, the inflation-adjusted salaries are declining by more than 1 % in average. This means that the average citizen is becoming poorer every year on an inflation adjusted basis.

Dave Schuler said at December 7, 2005 11:31 AM:

Reliance on minimum and sub-minimum wage employees is a business strategy. We can't maintain a competitive advantage on the basis of that strategy for the reasons that Randall has given. The alternative strategy is greater reliance on technology where we can. And that reliance will also create jobs for people who design, build, install, operate, and service that technology. Americans have been avoiding the education that would enable them to fill those high-tech jobs because, as long as the national strategy is reliance on low-wage employees, there's no future here for technology. They're getting government jobs, jobs in healthcare, jobs in education, and other places where legal restrictions and licensing requirements reduces competition from overseas.

Ivan Kirigin said at December 7, 2005 12:27 PM:

I've been told the cost of farm land is non-trivial, mainly because guarenteed government subsidies increase the price. Anyone have any numbers for this?

John S Bolton said at December 7, 2005 5:16 PM:

"You can't plausibly argue that immigrant-dominated sectors have a labor shortage" says the sociologist Robert Courtney Smith, as quoted in the NYT of 12-7-05, p.A30. This article reports on new Pew study which finds high unemployment, low incomes, high seasonality of employment, and in particular, abandonment of jobs in Mexico by immigrants from there.

Mark said at December 7, 2005 6:54 PM:

Jack Vessey is to Mexican immigrants what Harris Miller is to Indian H1Bs. In addition to the CS article you mentioned, he is also in the Washington Post whining about a Mexican shortage here Shortage of Immigrant Workers Alarms Growers in West

Vessey and Harris are both cheap labor lobbyist scum.

Mark said at December 7, 2005 7:26 PM:

Here is Vessey in the LA Times Picking a Battle Over Shortage of Farmworkers. Here is Vessey in USA Today Finding labor for the fields a trying task

Vessey, Vessey everywhere. Vessey seems to spend more time being a lobbyist hack than being a farmer.

Mark said at December 7, 2005 7:43 PM:

More Vessey, this time whining about energy prices in the USA Today
Rising fuel costs put strapped farmers over a barrel

Alan Kennedy said at December 8, 2005 7:45 PM:

hi just found you through democracy in iraq blog

that was interesting information, did not know that about the farming in california, does show one cost of high security is makes things more expensive

you have an interesting blog there

will try to link asap as well, remind me if I forget to

PacRim Jim said at December 9, 2005 3:23 PM:

I remember reading that there are not enough women in the U.S. to handle calls as operators used to do. That's the rationale for the digital switch. (When it was introduced, almost all operators were women.)

Hugh Angell said at December 10, 2005 5:25 PM:

Perhaps this belongs more appropriately over on FutureTech where the discussion is more
genetics and IQ but here goes.

I have wondered why we need to continue to use humans, for example, farm labor and other
physically demanding but low skill tasks. Given advances in genetic engineering is there
any reason, other than ethical, that animal species could not be engineered to be able to
perform these tasks? Chimpanzees or even raccoons have the physical dexterity to say
harvest oranges or stoop labor but we have not been able to either domesticate or train
them for these tasks.

Could gene therapy enable these or other animals to acquire more human traits, perhaps
the ability to understand language or recognize what is being asked of them? If a super
ape could be developed their utility would be enormous yet because they are an animal
the problems encountered with having a 'class' of humans performing low skill and low
paid tasks avoided. Humane treatment of course but back when horses and oxen were the
farmers ( and others) main engines people cared for their beasts, often better than they
cared for their human workers.

Other industrial activity too comes to mind. Say situations where people are required to
climb to dizzying height merely to insert a bolt or connect wires surely an ape could do
this more safely if only we could tell the ape what needed to be done.

Engineer-Poet said at December 10, 2005 5:43 PM:

Chimps are very expensive, and it would be difficult to train them not to eat the product.  Health standards might also be tough to maintain.

One thing we have that's (still) getting cheaper is automation.

Randall Parker said at December 10, 2005 9:51 PM:


Have you ever looked at a table of occupations by risk of death? Loggers, aircraft pilots, and fishermen have the highest death rates. The fishermen who do the deep sea fishing off of Alaska are a much greater risk than the numbers in that chart suggest. My guess is crabbers off of Alaska might have the most dangerous occupation.

My suggestions on what to do to lower the death rates of those occupations:

1) Develop remotely controllable equipment for logging. Stay away from the trees dammit.

2) Develop software that can take off and land airplanes. That's coming.

3) Develop better aquaculture technologies. The seas are being overfished. We need to farm fish in shore area facilities that are much less dangerous. We need to genetically engineer soy to produce omega 3 fatty acids so we can feed high omega 3 fatty acid soy to aquaculture salmon.

But the biggest absolute number of deaths is when driving while working. 905 people a year die that way in the United States. I wonder what the leading causes are for death while driving. What's the relative contribution of sleepiness, crowded roads, substance abuse, equipment failure, and human error.

Monkeys would drive the total death rate up on highways. People with IQs below 100 have double the accident rates of those above 100 and below 85 IQ accident rates triple.

What causes most farm deaths btw? Anyone know?

Hugh Angell said at December 11, 2005 1:17 PM:

RP, I don't recall suggesting that we use animals as truck drivers though if the 'smart
highways' might make that possible.

Yes indeed the era of the human pilot is coming to a close, at least as far as military
aircraft are concerned. Airframes, powerplants and computer flight controls have already
made the pilot a supernumary in the cockpit as G forces, radar and other sensors combined
with ground to air data links make the need for a 'pilot' more a liability than an asset.

Still I see no reason why efforts at creating a chimera to perform simple but essential
tasks is not possible. I realize there are ethical concerns but these exist as well for
such simple things as GM crops or fish farming as well.

Dogs have the capability to smell things and we use them for this. Be it drugs, explosives
or even cancers the olfactory capability of the dog needs to be exploited. The problem is
it is merely a dog. It takes much time and effort to train the dog to do what we want it
to do. Surely it would behoove us to try and implant some human genes into a dog to make
it easier to communicate with the animal. We may not yet know what genes to use for this
purpose but we have put human genes into animals should we learn what genes might enhance
an animals cognitive powers attempting to enhance our ability to communicate with a dog,
ape, dolphin or raccoon would overwhelm the ethical objections.

We already treat our pets as members of the family even talking to them and buying them
gifts so what is wrong with giving Fido the ability to understand what we are saying. It
would be a godsend. If you don't want the kids to leave the house when you are away you
tell Fido that is what you want and you tell the kids 'don't try it or Fido will bite you!

Randall Parker said at December 11, 2005 1:39 PM:


My point is that the most dangerous jobs require the intelligence level of an an average human or even an above average human. Look at the list I linked to.

Randall Parker said at December 11, 2005 5:46 PM:

I also think we could automate dangerous jobs and develop safety technology a lot more quickly and easily than we could genetically engineer monkeys for higher intelligence. Even once we genetically engineer the monkeys we would still need to train them and get them to obey.

Stephen said at December 11, 2005 8:27 PM:

Genetically engineered monkeys???? Are you a mad man???? Haven't you seen the planet of the apes remake??? That's how it all started.

More calmly, the smarter you make the monkeys, you'd have to start paying them more as an incentive to do stuff.

Also, at what point would these monkey workers be able to claim suffrage?

As for the CNN list, I'm a but suspicious of it - I'd have though underground mining would make an appearance.

Proborders said at December 17, 2005 11:41 PM:

Millions of illegal aliens are in the USA, and yet there is a farm labor shortage (at least in certain areas).

If farm workers were paid a living wage, more Americans would likely be interested in farm work.

Gray said at December 25, 2005 9:55 PM:

ore calmly, the smarter you make the monkeys, you'd have to start paying them more as an incentive to do stuff.

Also, at what point would these monkey workers be able to claim suffrage?

As for the CNN list, I'm a but suspicious of it - I'd have though underground mining would make an appearance.

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