Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What Would Happen Faster If Immigration Was Tightened

As if the debate over immigration and guest worker programs wasn't complicated enough, now a couple of robots are rolling into the middle of it.

Vision Robotics, a San Diego company, is working on a pair of robots that would trundle through orchards plucking oranges, apples or other fruit from the trees. In a few years, troops of these machines could perform the tedious and labor-intensive task of fruit picking that currently employs thousands of migrant workers each season.

The robotic work has been funded entirely by agricultural associations, and pushed forward by the uncertainty surrounding the migrant labor force. Farmers are "very, very nervous about the availability and cost of labor in the near future," says Vision Robotics CEO Derek Morikawa.


[I]t wasn't just technological challenges that held back previous attempts at building a mechanical harvester –- politics got involved, too. Cesar Chavez, the legendary leader of the United Farm Workers, began a campaign against mechanization back in 1978.

Chavez was outraged that the federal government was funding research and development on agricultural machines, but not spending any money to aid the farm workers who would be displaced. In the '80s, that simmering anger merged with a growing realization that the technology was nowhere near ready, and government funding dried up.

This time around, growers' associations are funding the research. By the end of this year, the orange growers will have invested almost $1 million in the project, says Ted Baskin, president of the California Citrus Research Board. He estimates that it will take about $5 million more to get to the finished product.

The farmers are willing to pay up because they've been rattled by a labor shortage over the past few years -- California growers tell horror stories of watching their fruit rot on the trees as they waited for the picking crews to arrive. Last fall, growers rallied in front of the U.S. Capitol, frustrated that Congress still hadn't created a program to ease the passage of foreign guest workers across the Mexico border.

With the supply-and-demand equation uncertain, growers see the robots as a better option. "You can predict what it's going to cost to buy a machine and maintain it," says Baskin. "You can't predict the bargaining that we go through with contract labor," he says.

There are two industries that are stronger attractors for people here in California that are illegal immigrants: agricultural and construction. If we were able to automate the these jobs then we would greatly reduce the pull factor of illegal immigration. To be sure, not end it since there are also the lower paying factory jobs and horrifyingly paying Walmartesque ones as well, but it would be a way of reducing it in a nontrivial way. Technology can and does impact society.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Um. Would it happen faster? I look at the history of mechanical harvesting, and I'm unsure.

True, it's more likely that a proof of concept machine will be built earlier in the technological sequence than the equivalent versions of the mechanical rice harvester or mechanical cotton picker. But if it's at the wrong price point, it won't be adopted. And I haven't seen any signs of Moore's Law operating in farm equipment.

Also, Baskin is being more than a bit disingenuous in his comparison of the financial risks. But he's a flack, that's his job.

My gut feeling is that, all else being equal, mechanizing fruit picking will increase migrant pressures to the U.S., the same way that mechanizing cotton picking spurred Southern emigration in the postwar period.

(But maybe not: the number of migrant fruit pickers is small compared to the number of Southern sharecroppers, and the Mexican economy today is much stronger than the economy of the rural South in 1950.)