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article imageWith immigrants targeted, U.S. farms look to automation

By Karen Graham     Nov 12, 2017 in Technology
The Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigrants has hit the U.S. agricultural sector rather hard, especially when seven out of 10 farm workers are undocumented. Rather than fight this policy, many farms are looking to automation and robotics.
“I get calls on a daily basis and it typically starts with, ‘I don’t want to deal with this labor headache anymore’,” Steve Fried, the sales manager for Lely North America, which makes robotic dairy milking and feeding systems tells Reuters.
The administration's crackdown on illegal immigration has resulted in an increase in arrests and tougher border enforcement, and in turn, has created problems for farmers. There has also been legislation introduced in Congress that would require all employers to check social security numbers against federal databases to ensure their workers are in the country legally. This has been voluntary in the past.
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USDA
Sadly, this policy change, along with possible tax, trade and environmental changes being considered, has put the agricultural sector in a bind. Commodity prices are at historic lows, and many farmers are continuing to experience net operating losses and mounting debt.
A study in 2014 by the Pew Research Center showed 26 percent, or one in four, of all U.S. farmworkers, were in the country illegally. And more recently, the Federation for American Immigration Reform has estimated that stricter enforcement of U.S. immigration laws could drive up labor costs by as much as 12 percent.
The industry being forced into technology
This get-tough approach "has created a great deal of anxiety," said Tom Vilsack, chief executive of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, who was U.S. Agriculture Secretary for eight years under President Barack Obama.
Monitoring a crop using the Internet of Things.
Monitoring a crop using the Internet of Things.
Kakaxi
With new governmental directives, a slipping commodity market, questions over trade agreements and an aging workforce, the agricultural sector is being forced to embrace new technologies in order to survive. And this includes not only farmers but the food companies in the supply chain.
Dairy farmers are being encouraged to buy robots to milk their cows, Poultry companies are streamlining processing and automation is now being seen in crop production and harvesting. Soon, harvesting romaine lettuce by hand will be a thing of the past.
“You’d be a fool to not have a plan that moves you that way,” said Duff Bevill, who owns a vineyard management company in Sonoma County, California.
Agriculture drone in acrtion.
Agriculture drone in acrtion.
Ipsos
Futuristic technology for the agriculture industry
Energias Market Research released their Global Agriculture Robots report on November 6, 2017, noting that the global market in agriculture robotics was $1,030.4 million in 2016, and is expected to reach USD $4,721.1 million by 2023. North America accounts for the major market share and is expected to hold the largest market share during the forecast period.
The report also notes the main drivers in the growth of agricultural robotics is due to three main forces — Increasing population, growing food consumption and the decrease in agriculture labor worldwide. In 2016, driverless Tractors held the major market share of the global agriculture robots market. Field Farming is the largest segment of global agriculture robots market in 2016.
Growing vegetables using robotics.
Growing vegetables using robotics.
Bowery Farms
Investors stepping up to the challenge
Addressing U.S. agriculture's labor squeeze with new technologies is an investors dream. And with falling electronics and software prices and advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence, the market is thriving.
Google Ventures, the venture capital arm of Alphabet Inc, has spearheaded a $10 million investment in Abundant Robotics, a startup founded in 2016 in Hayward, California. The company is working on a robotic vacuum picker that they say is a potential game-changer for growers and the industry at large.
Google Ventures also participated in a $20 million funding round for Bowery Farming, which uses robotics to grow leafy greens indoors. Bowery Farming was founded in 2015 in New York, New York, and uses high-tech approaches such as robotics, LED lighting and data analytics to grow leafy greens indoors.
Automation in the agricultural sector will continue to grow, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out with U.S. trade agreements still up in the air. A good point to remember is that not every farmer can afford to upgrade to automation.
More about Trump immigration policies, US agricultural sector, Automation, Farming, Technology