2009 November 14 Saturday
Farm Automation Replacing Humans

Why let in low skilled immigrants to do manual labor on farms when we are at the transition point where lots of farm jobs are going to get taken over by computer automation. That automated equipment doesn't need taxpayer subsidized health care, unemployment benefits, or schooling for children.

It was 1903 when Robert Blair’s great-grandfather began farming the dry ridge overlooking the Clearwater River near Lewiston, Idaho. In 2001, when Blair took the reins, the farm’s books were still kept by hand. Now, he has deployed a set of Darpa-like technologies, including unmanned aerial vehicles and self-steering tractors.

“In six years, I went from just having a cell phone to my tractor driving itself, and having a small airplane flying and landing itself on a farm,” Blair said.

The new precision farmers are hacking together a way of making food in which the virtual and physical worlds are so tightly bound that having his tractor steered by GPS-guidance with inch-level accuracy is ho-hum. Autosteering of farm machinery has exploded over the past several years, according to an annual survey by Purdue University’s Center for Food and Agricultural Business. In 2004, just 5 percent of agricultural retail outlets offered autosteering. In 2008, more than half did.

Autosteering of farm equipment is a lot easier than autosteering of cars because lots of tractors move around in fields that contain no humans aside from the guy in the cab. The big benefits include the ability to put rows closer together and even vary application of fertilizer and pesticides by area of each field based on historical yields per area. Also, the tractor operator can do other tasks (e.g. surf the internet or do accounting tasks on a laptop during periods when the autosteering is in operation). Further maturation of this technology will eliminate the need for humans in control cabs. Picture huge fields with robotic combines sweeping across, with no human in sight, harvesting wheat and corn crops.

The biggest labor-saving advances will probably come with better automated picking equipment that removes most of the existing use of manual labor for picking vegetables.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2009 November 14 12:59 PM  Immigration Economics

Bob Badour said at November 14, 2009 2:17 PM:
The big benefits include the ability to put rows closer together

Not closer together: more consistently spaced. Consider upgrading from a 4 row human guided planter to a 6 row autosteered planter.

The 4 row planter will have 4 evenly spaced rows with an uneven gap on either side. Where the gap is wider than necessary, land is wasted as is the fertilizer and pesticide you spray on the empty space. Where the gap is narrower than ideal, crowded plants yield less. Plus, the cultivator and the harvester have to operate on 4 rows too so that they can follow the same uneven gaps.

If you try to upgrade the planter to a 6 row human guided planter, you have to upgrade all the other equipment at the same time. Otherwise, your cultivator will rip up some of your plants and your harvester may miss some spots. However, if your 6 row planter can make the spacing between the outer rows nearly as even as the spacing between the inner rows, you can upgrade the planter and continue using your 4 row cultivator and 4 row harvester. In a year or two, you can upgrade the harvester and later the cultivator too or vice versa. In the meantime, the carefully considered flow rate on your fertilizer sprayer and pesticide sprayer will deliver just the ideal amount of each to every plant.

MaryJ said at November 14, 2009 11:18 PM:

It doesn't even have to be fancy computer-guided mechanical harvesting devices -- the US is woefully behind on even regular mechanical harvesting technology. That's because the United Farmworkers union sued the federal government to stop all research into harvest mechanization at any university receiving federal funds in 1978, and won. The most sophisticated harvesting machines now come from Europe where harvest mechanization has long been a necessity. Slowly but surely, US farmers are starting to buy these machines -- but it's an industrial sector that the US could have established itself in 30 years ago if it hadn't been for the sainted UFW and its need to continue importing Mexican union members.

rob said at November 15, 2009 10:25 AM:

Companies that make stuff like automated tractors, car washes, roombas etc. could be great allies in the fight to stay a mechanized first world country.

Come to think of it, it is time to (accurately) smear the unskilled immigrant lobbies as luddites and technophobes. They want a future with a permanent underclass picking fruit. Little brown people will always clean the floors and wash the dishes. What a progressive vision: replace your washing machine with a Mexican!

MaryJ said at November 15, 2009 10:44 AM:

If the US had been allowed to establish itself in the harvest mechanization industrial sector, some of the low-paying farmworkers' jobs that were displaced would have become higher-paying, higher-value jobs making the same machines -- or performing maintenance on them -- that displaced them in the fields. Everyone would have been better off, especially society as a whole.

miles said at November 15, 2009 7:58 PM:

This is a positive development indeed. Cheers!

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