On American Farms, Skilled Labor Is Fighting It Out Against the Machines

Although working conditions and pay are improving for some farmworkers, mechanization could change ag labor completely.

(Illustration: Hobvias Sudoneighm/Flickr)

Apr 7, 2014· 7 MIN READ
Andrew Elrod is a writer living in New York. He is a contributor and former intern at Dissent, and his writing has also appeared at n+1, In These Times, and Al Jazeera America.

The $50 billion–a–year fruit and vegetable industry may have found a way to provide long overdue improvements to the lives of its workers and simultaneously capitalize on it through branded programs that improve worker pay, allow more worker self-management in the fields, and create grievance resolution procedures.

Much as "fair trade" and "organic" labels earned premium margins from concerned consumers, a growing number of firms have proposed introducing a modicum of worker self-management in the fields as a selling point for their products. One of these proposals, the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI), will offer businesses a workforce certification program, in the hopes that including workers’ decisions in harvesting can reduce food-borne illnesses. Another, the Fair Food Program, creates workplace committees and grievance resolution procedures for participating farms. Both offer laborers greater pay.

They are programs with obvious appeal for conscious consumers that also provide something long desired by activists in the labor movement. In the words of Ramón Ramirez, the president of the Oregon farmworkers’ union Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), “the EFI standards give workers a voice in the workplace.” Yet as these new standards proliferate, a simultaneous trend of mechanization in American agriculture is leading growers and workers to grapple with the possibilities and limitations of consumer choice as a form of market regulation. The introduction of increasingly sophisticated technology into production comes at a moment when businesspeople, unions, and professional humanitarians are trying to increase workers’ control over their labor. So while some farms are improving conditions and pay, the industry is preparing to permanently alter the means of production, greatly reducing the importance of workers themselves.

"I think we need to be clear on why we’re doing it," says Erik Nicholson, associate director of the United Farm Workers, of the move toward mechanization. “If the drive is profit margins, chances are workers, the environment, and consumers are going to pay a price.”

Nicholson tells a classic tale of innovation, growth, and ultimately consolidation, with the attendant risks to consumer and employee health and safety.

“What we have seen across the board, in a number of different crops,” says Nicholson, “is that [mechanization] further introduces chemicals into the food chain that were not previously present, requires a higher degree of capitalization by growers in order to buy the machines, and subsequently further concentrates agricultural production in the hands of fewer and fewer people.”

But innovation also eliminates what some consider backbreaking labor and creates higher levels of productivity—and thus cheaper food.

Take, for example, green bean harvesting in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where in the early 1980s, the introduction of mechanical harvesters greatly altered the way the crop was planted, farmed, and harvested, Nicholson said. First growers had to find a plant whose fruit would ripen all at once (“So right off the bat the first thing lost...is flavor”), then an antifungal treatment had to be introduced because people weren’t out in the field as often, and were no longer on hand to deal with moldy beans.

The chemical used was called vinclozolin. The fungicide is an antiandrogen, meaning that it reduces the developmental effects of male hormones such as testosterone. When the chemical was given in high doses to rats, the EPA later found that it resulted in “sex organ malformations...such as reduced penis size, ectopic [misplaced] testes, vaginal pouches, hypospadias,...[and] Leydig cell (testicular) tumors.”

“For 14 consecutive years,” says Nicholson, “the growers went to the EPA asking for an ‘emergency exemption’ to be able to use the vinclozolin on green beans to control the mold.”

In this case the Oregon farmworkers' union—Nicholson’s previous employer and the union representing the irrigators left working in the fields—eventually won a ban on the chemical. But the march of machinery and the changes it brings can often appear an autonomous force, beyond decisions in any one workplace. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, the yearly quantity of capital investment by the agricultural industry in durable goods nearly doubled from 1948 to 2011. In the same time period the total quantity of labor employed decreased by 78 percent—a massive increase in productivity. “Although land and labor used in farm production decreased over time,” explains federal economist Sun Ling Wang, “with increased productivity, total output actually keeps increasing.”

Until recently, most sectors of agriculture, except fruit and vegetable harvesting, had already been mechanized to some degree. The first threshing machine for wheat was invented in the 18th century, and mechanical combines have been mass-produced for more than a hundred years. But now even those tasks once thought impossible for a machine—say picking strawberries or mushrooms, in which tenderness is paramount to the quality of the product—are being tackled by scientists and engineers. While some, such as Nicholson, do not expect new machines to work on a commercial scale anytime soon, the possibilities they pose to changing the industry are very real.

Joe Wickham, president of Robotic Harvesting, a California company developing a strawberry-picking robot, says a commercial product could be ready in a year or so, but “more investment is required for testing, and we’re still in the development stages.”

Juan Bravo, president of Agrobot, a robotic harvesting company founded in Spain and now based in California, is a little more optimistic. In addition to Agrobot, he says two other companies are developing robotic strawberry harvesters, including his competitor Robotic Harvesting, another in Australia, and five universities in Japan. As for productivity, Bravo says his company’s machine will cut labor costs for strawberry growers in half.

California produces 90 percent of the strawberries grown in the United States, or a little more than 2.5 billion pounds of berries, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The value of California’s 2011 strawberry crop was $1.9 billion—all of it harvested by hand. Labor costs amount to a third of total farm income in the state.

“Genuine and real” was how Steven Zahniser, an agricultural economist also at the ERS, described the level of interest in mechanized fruit harvesting. “But the market is relatively thin,” he explains, implying that it would take time for automated harvesting to really take off. Still, harvesting delicate produce directly for market is only the last redoubt of purely manual labor against the aid of machinery and the changes it brings. After a crop like strawberries leaves the farm, in the processing facilities and packinghouses it passes through en route to retailers, the use of machinery reigns as a sound management practice. For example, every year the California Strawberry Commission—a trade group that has expressed interest in both Wickham's and Bravo’s work—releases a 200-page research report on industry innovations. In 2013, the report carried an article on “an automated calyx removal system” (cutting off of strawberry stems) to process frozen strawberries. The system purported to reduce field labor by 60 people per machine.

Whether machinery poses threats to consumers is often determined by the specifics of the process being mechanized. By removing pressures on workers manually de-calyxing strawberries, the CSC report argues that production will be safer, with less risk of finger injuries and product contamination. But for many workers, there is a consistent trend of degrading conditions with the introduction of technology.

Nelson Carrasquillo, general coordinator of El Comité de Apoyo a Los Trabajadores Agrícolas, an agricultural workers’ organization in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, says that workers often complain about issues as simple as speeding up a conveyor belt. “The productivity [increase] has been more in terms of the pressures that the workers have [from management] in order to, what we call, speed up.” Carrasquillo says that in agricultural workplaces characterized by a demand for high productivity, initiatives to promote worker training and decision making, such as the Equitable Food Initiative or the Fair Food Program, are completely unheard of: “The testimony from the workers, they are not indicative of that.”

“Training is few and far in between,” he explains. “Hygiene in the line, safety measures, are not taken. Contamination of product, products falling on the ground, when mixing different types of chemicals [to treat the product], they are not careful enough.” The lapse in safety measures, he says, is spurred by high demands for productivity. “It's just about the speed-up, no? All the actions that will lead to process the product as quickly as possible. So then [workers] begin taking shortcuts.”

Despite technological advances in the fields, the intermediary jobs in packinghouses and processing facilities are most susceptible to mechanization. And almost all jobs in the food chain are targets for increased managerial control—from speeding up the line to preventing rest breaks. It is this control that ethical agriculture initiatives seek to challenge. According to Jose Oliva, associate director of the Food Chain Workers’ Alliance, a coalition of workers’ organizations across the food industry, something as simple as a 15-minute break for farmhands can be quite beneficial. “You actually decrease the possibility of food-borne illnesses tremendously,” he says, “because workers are able to take time off to go to the bathroom, as opposed to going to the bathroom right there in the field, which is actually very common still.”

However, that leaves 15 minutes less for harvesting—not to mention that initiatives for increasing worker self-management do not yet extend beyond the fields. Where such initiatives do exist workers and their representatives are given an opportunity to set production standards, receive paid training, and challenge managerial discretion. But such working conditions can prove barriers to management-led productivity increases. They are bound to raise production costs, and this is an obstacle for programs seeking to use consumer choice to regulate industry-wide conditions. Some businesses are willing to absorb increased costs. “I don’t expect at Bon Appétit we would pass along any price increases,” says Maisie Greenawalt, V.P. of strategy at the company, which manages more than 500 dining halls for organizations such as Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania, eBay, and Google and has signed on to one such program, the EFI. Others, however, may not be so inclined. As the UFW’s Nicholson says, growers will continue to sell cheaply “as long as we buy it.”

Indeed markets are responsive to consumer demand—that is their great feature. Yet while unionists and NGOs are seeking to leverage this fact in their push for better working conditions in agriculture, it is consumer demand for cheaper produce that gives impetus for entrepreneurs like Bravo and Wickham to mechanize fruit harvesting. Thus, backers who see the question of price as incidental to consumers’ psychic hunger for social justice nevertheless understand that budgeting shoppers can sustain cost-cutting measures that squeeze workers. Backers understand that successfully protecting workers’ autonomy on the job will depend on taking wages and working conditions out of competition. Says Greenawalt, “If everybody got together pre-competitively, and decided that we were all going to do better by farmworkers, then there wouldn’t be a price difference.”

For Oliva, enforcing such agreements is labor's critical role. “Self-enforcement wouldn’t work if there weren’t strong organizations like CIW [a farmworkers’ group in Florida’s tomato fields],” he explains, “strong organizations of workers who are then able to beat back agreements from being broken.” In the case of vinclozolin in the Willamette Valley, where irrigators were being exposed to the antiandrogen fungicide, it was labor that tempered the vagaries of mechanization and took the chemical out of use. “We’re in the forefront,” says Nicholson. “Long-term structural change takes time, and we’re very encouraged with the progress we’ve made to date.”

In the meantime, the march of the machines continues. The California Strawberry Commission report on one new product tells us that just “24 machines would be required to fully automate the calyx-removal process for all 530 million lbs of process strawberries” harvested in the United States in 2011. Reduced labor costs would save growers $510,000 per machine each season; one machine would pay for itself in fewer than six weeks of operation.

TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is involved in the production and marketing of Cesar Chavez. The Equitable Food Initiative is the NGO partner in Participant Media's social action campaign for Cesar Chavez. The relationship does not affect TakePart’s editorial content.