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2011 June 08 Wednesday
Less Immigrants Means More Farm Automation

Cut out cheap labor and the big San Joaquin Valley row crop farms will automate.

Immigration reform and stricter enforcement of current immigration laws could significantly boost labor costs for California’s $20 billion fresh fruit, nut and vegetable crops, according to agricultural economists at UC Davis and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This, in turn, would likely prompt the industry to adjust by increasing mechanization and introducing harvesting aids to boost laborers’ productivity, they predict. Imports may also rise.

Unions had this same effect on mining and other industries. Raise the cost of labor and the owners of capital will figure out how to use less of it. The resulting boosts in productivity raise living standards in the long run.

It is interesting to note in this regard that the opening of China as a source of cheap labor has caused manufacturing in a number of industries (e.g. photovoltaic panels, batteries) to shift from more automated Western factories to less automated factories in China. The labor was so cheap that it was cheaper than machines. So this shift of manufacturing to low labor countries can slow the rate of progress.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2011 June 08 08:48 PM  Immigration Labor Market


Comments
bob sykes said at June 9, 2011 4:50 AM:

I would like to question the China cheap-labor thing. Somewhere on the web one of the economic blogs claimed that, because of the transition from outdated Maoist manufacturing methods to modern western automated factories, China was losing factory jobs.

anon said at June 9, 2011 5:11 AM:

"Unions had this same effect on mining and other industries. Raise the cost of labor and the owners of capital will figure out how to use less of it. The resulting boosts in productivity raise living standards in the long run."

This is not really true. There is a tradeoff between using less labor vs. using more resources (e.g. fuel) and increasing product costs. Even when agriculture is concerned, automated crop harvesters are costly and may also damage produce during the harvesting process, causing lower quality. This is all the more true when considering other jobs, e.g. personal services.

China and other emerging countries are special cases: they are specializing in labor-intensive activities while building infrastructural capital which will enable them to raise future productivity and living standards.

This is not to say that we shouldn't enforce existing laws, or even that immigration should not be further limited. But such policies ought to be adopted on their merits.

Sgt. Joe Friday said at June 9, 2011 7:26 AM:

Then maybe the optimum public policy ought to be tighter immigration rules and a modest tariff on imported goods. The big exporters won't like the latter because they fear retaliation, but c'mon you're telling me Boeing was hurting before free trade? They had at least 2 domestic competitors, European competition, not to mention state-run competition from the USSR - although to be fair the old Ilyushin and Tupolev jets killed large numbers of their passengers with some regularity, which was unpleasant.

bbartlog said at June 9, 2011 11:56 AM:

China is losing manufacturing jobs, yes. It stands to reason and is a hopeful sign.

Farm automation, at least when it comes to harvesting row crops, is hard (harder than factory automation... your targets are squishy, dirty, and polymorphic rather than easily modeled entities like sheet steel). But after all we've already automated quite a lot of it - grains, corn, soybeans etc. from end to end, but also the planting of many crops like broccoli. Just a matter of time until we get other parts like strawberry picking done. One of the interesting things about this is that the marginal costs of producing a strawberry-picking robot should not be all that high (compared to, say, a massive wheat combine), once the intensely hard software problem is solved. So it's an attractive problem to try to solve.

SF said at June 9, 2011 1:01 PM:

Between Chico and Red Bluff, CA, there are a lot of olive orchards, but nearly all of the olive oil is imported. A process has recently been developed using automatic harvesters and dwarf trees to make local olive oil competitive. Didn't save the reference last year, but I hope the process grows.

Randall Parker said at June 9, 2011 1:53 PM:

Someone who can't imagine an original pseudonym said:

This is not really true. There is a tradeoff between using less labor vs. using more resources (e.g. fuel) and increasing product costs. Even when agriculture is concerned, automated crop harvesters are costly and may also damage produce during the harvesting process, causing lower quality. This is all the more true when considering other jobs, e.g. personal services.

There's a large external cost to low salary laborers in the United States. Our minimum standards for education, medical care, retirement, and other elements of a lifestyle mean that higher earners subsidize lower earners. The machines have added costs. But without those machines the costs show up in the welfare state, prisons, police, lousier schools, and in other ways.

Labor versus resources trade-offs: Do you want to live in a society where there's plenty of low paid labor available that can compete with machines? Do you want to live in a society where accumulation of capital isn't large enough to make the import of poorly educated illegal alien workers uncompetitive?

bob sykes,

China is loosing factory jobs to automation while at the same time in some industries it has reduced the average level of automation. These two facts are not incompatible.

no i don't said at June 10, 2011 11:41 AM:

Slavery lingers on

REN said at June 10, 2011 8:17 PM:

During "Operation Wetback" President Eisenhower took a lot of flak from the Farm Lobbies. Why? Because they felt they wouldn't be able to pick tomatoes and other delicate crops. As it turns out, industry figured out a solution to mechanise the crop harvesting. Tomato harvest volumes actually went up!

Australia doesn't have a lot of low cost manual labor, yet their Wines are competitive with the world. How do they do it? They invented a new way of growing grapes on trellis forms and cutting them mechanically.

In Florida they are experimenting with machines that pick oranges with an extensible hose which has a vacuum tip. Once the tip acquires the Orange, the tip rotates breaking the Orange free from the branch. The downside: The orange groves will need to be planted a little wider to allow the mechanical picker to travel between the trees.

Low cost manual labor inhibits innovation. One of the keys to America's great wealth has been plenty of land and not many people. This has forced us to be creative, thus deriving a lot of real wealth per person.

Importing low cost illegal labor, and forcing them to scurry around in the shadows, is no better than slavery.

Farmers who insist they need slaves to pick their crops should be ashamed of themselves. Our immigrant slaves actually decrease our real wealth by damaging our future. The future is measured in opportunity cost, and what are the lost opportunities? They are huge.

WJ said at June 11, 2011 12:12 PM:

Cheap farm labor is the thin end of a very wide wedge, vis-a-vis illegal immigration. There are an estimated 12 million illegals living in the US, and very few of them are actually involved in harvesting crops. Yet the need for cheap crop pickers is often used as an excuse to justify policies that keep millions of illegals here who aren't picking crops.

Of course the agriculture industry is already hugely subsidized by the government. My suggestion would be to allow accelerated depreciation of harvesting equipment. Perhaps we could even give direct government subsidies for purchasing such equipment. It would be far cheaper than subsidizing the laborers and their offspring. It's hard to see how the Ag industry could object to another government handout, and it strikes me as the kind of subsidy that could be inserted into a farm bill with little complaint, as few open borders pols would notice its ultimate effect on the immigration debate.

FWIW, I've often thought that a similar approach would help the middle class reclaim inner suburbs of cities from which they've been driven by poor NAMs. Increase tax incentives for home remodelling. NAMs don't do much remodelling, and probably wouldn't benefit on their tax returns from such expenses anyway. Given the probably permanent increase in the cost of gas, moving the middle class closer to their jobs could greatly reduce fuel consumption.

Engineer-Poet said at June 12, 2011 8:52 PM:

Remodelling the insides of houses won't be attractive if there are burglars, robbers and rapists outside or if the local public schools are "bad".  Such a transformation would require policing of the area against outsiders and a replacement of district schools with e.g. charter schools using entrance exams and expelling academic failures and the violent.  All of this will be denounced as "racism".

Roy Beck was on "To The Contrary" and Limits To Growth picked up the segment.  He had some things to say about automation of farm work in a CNN interview also linked by Limits To Growth.  Both worth watching.

Vision systems are only getting better, and robotic systems can scan using multi-spectral sensors, electrical sensors, and other means unavailable to unaided humans.  Manipulators are improving too; the vacuum-activated beanbag gripper is completely new.  Whatever it takes to find a tomato at the proper stage of ripeness, pick it cleanly off the vine and place it in a crate unbruised, we either have it or will shortly.  The system can also catalog the unpicked tomatoes and project what the next day's ready harvest will be, and it can probably be powered by solar panels covering its crates of produce.  The goal of sending immigrant stoop-laborers home ought to be a national priority.

Mike said at June 13, 2011 9:29 PM:

One on the reasons why farms are still using cheap labour is the switch to so-called organic farming. Organic farming is labour intensive, and so has a greater demand for low cost labour.

Also in many cases the advantages to using labour intensive methods are a small savings in operating costs. For example, in New Zealand, fruit is usually picked with hand-held ladders because this is about 10 percent cheaper than using hydraulic ladders and guest workers. However, factor in all the costs associated with bringing large numbers of unskilled labourers into the country and the advantage disappears. Recently a large volume of kiwifruit had to be destroyed because a Fijian guest workers was found to be carrying Typhoid.


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