By Joe Guzzardi
Good news for the ag industry. Robotics have become more affordable, smarter and easier to operate. Soft fruits like strawberries can be picked mechanically now.
Florida-based Harvest CROO has developed technology that can pick ripe strawberries without damaging the delicate fruit. A primary Harvest CROO goal is to help reduce U.S. obesity by keeping the supply of “super foods” like strawberries readily available and reasonably priced. A related benefit is that growers who opt for Harvest CROO’s technology won’t have to worry about labor shortages and will no longer have to rely on tedious back-breaking stoop labor.
In California’s Salinas Valley, Taylor Farms manager David Offerdahl demonstrated his Automatic Romaine Lettuce Harvester to CBS News. The harvester uses a high-pressure water stream to cut five heads of lettuce at a time. Workers then pack the lettuce into boxes while standing under a shaded canopy, thus ending stoop labor. Offerdahl said that the robot can harvest twice the lettuce in half the time. As well, for every two low-paying jobs mechanization eliminates, one higher paying job is created.
The term to describe the increasingly popular transition to robotics is “precision agriculture,” which means applying new technology to increase crop production while reducing waste. The market for advanced farming tools was estimated to be about $7 billion in 2020, but projected to reach $12.8 billion over the next four years.
Despite the obvious advantages robotics presents, Congress remains stuck in the technological dark ages and heeds the ag industry’s annual laments about worker shortages. Harvest CROO and the Automatic Romaine Lettuce Harvester have proven that technology is a better way to go than temporary employment visas.
Nevertheless, in early July, Congress did what it does most effectively and most consistently – reject 21st century solutions and, at the same time, undermine American workers by approving unnecessary work visas. After markups and hearings, the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee approved a $91.5 billion Department of Homeland Security spending bill. But a portion of the bill had nothing to do with defending the homeland.
Tucked away in the DHS legislation are provisions that would greatly expand the H-2A visa for agriculture workers, which allows employers to hire foreign-born laborers, and the H-2B visa for non-ag workers. Originally, the agricultural employment-based visas were temporary in nature; the employee had to return home when the season ended. But the language describing the H-2A that permitted the worker to remain for up to three years will be rewritten, and the jobs will no longer be classified as seasonal. The worker will be available for continuing and perhaps continuous employment.
The H-2B visa program allows U.S. employers to import about 66,000 foreign workers for seasonal nonagricultural jobs in industries like construction, landscaping, hospitality and food services. These industries are chronic complainers that a labor shortage puts their companies at bankruptcy risk. A new wrinkle written into the DHS spending bill which would expand the H-2B visa program will exempt foreign-born workers who arrived on H-2B visas during the last three years from the annual cap, a provision that could result in at least 200,000 additional H-2B workers.
On the plus side, the GOP-led Appropriations Committee, which has a 34-27 majority, drafted a bill that ramps up border security and interior enforcement. The bill also cuts taxpayer dollars used to allocate cash to open border-supporting NGOs. On the downside, the work visa totals will increase, obviously needlessly, as millions of low-skilled migrants, mostly employment-authorized through their parole status, pour across the border. The committee should strike the sections that increase and expand the H-2A and H-2B visas. Major changes in immigration laws don’t belong in a DHS funding bill; they should be debated in Congress and voted on by the authorizing committees, not snuck into an appropriations bill.
In May, the House passed H.R. 2, the Secure the Border Act. Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan described the bill as “the strongest immigration enforcement legislation in modern times…” Even in the unlikely event that H.R. 2 becomes law during the Biden administration, the legislation would be undermined if Congress increases legal immigration, the Appropriations Committee’s objective. More immigration expands the labor pool and displaces American workers.
Big ag has gotten away with relying on cheap labor for decades. Instead of encouraging continuous dependence on low-cost imported labor by providing more H-2A and H-2B visas, Congress should demand that employers invest in proven robotic harvesters that can work 18 hours a day, never call in sick and, within a short time, pay for themselves.
The H-2A has a long, documented history of fraud and abuse that includes a recent lawsuit which charged a western Michigan farm of trafficking foreign-born H-2A visa workers into blueberry picking jobs where they were paid slave wages and housed in squalid conditions with other exploited workers. Given the H-2A’s past track record that includes criminal wrongdoing, Congress should use its power to demand that farmers, within a reasonable time period, mechanize. Out with slave labor and in with efficient, humane and modern farming practices.Source : Instituteforsoundpublicpolicy