The Evolution of Ag Labor
It’s hard to have a conversation about automation without addressing the fear surrounding it. While technology advances over the past 25 years have steadily reduced global poverty, this reduction has slowed down in most recent years. COVID-19 represents an even greater threat to the once promising global poverty reduction trends. The conversation surrounding the fear of automation is not specific to one industry, and agriculture is now in the midst of its own revolution.
Many lessons from other industries highlight the potential impact automation will have on the ag laborer. For example, the rollout of ATMs in the U.S. during the 1970s fundamentally changed the role of bank tellers. It also significantly decreased the cost of operating an individual bank branch, allowing banks to expand the number of branches they operate. In the process, the number of bank branches increased by 40% between 1988 and 2004, and hiring of bank tellers also increased.
The biotech revolution is another example worth looking into. The advances in computing capabilities created a whole suite of new jobs in the biotech industry, ~1.66 million to be exact, which never existed before. Many of these are high paying jobs, as well, with an average annual wage of ~$95,000. Numerous other examples highlight similar trends, either the creation of entirely new jobs, or a shift in the tasks for certain occupations.
Now if any industry today needs solutions for labor shortages, it is surely agriculture.
As hundreds of millions of people have moved to cities, the pool of workers able to take farm jobs has steadily shrunk. For agriculture, this has created nothing short of a crisis. Reports of fields of berries or lettuce left unpicked are becoming more and more common, and growers can increasingly be heard worrying about the difficulty of finding labor. These challenges are amplified by the impacts of COVID-19. Smartphone apps like Ganaz are already responding, by connecting the remaining field workers to farms, much like Uber connects drivers to commuters.
Like any crisis, this one creates opportunities. The demand for labor-saving innovations has never been greater on the farm. Already in the past we’ve seen planters grow from 2 rows, to 4, 8, 16, and even 24 rows to allow one tractor driver to plant more and more land. Today, the driver is slowly being replaced entirely by self driving tractors precise to inches. Industry incumbents like CNHI, John Deere, and Raven (through their acquisition of SmartAg) are laser-focused on becoming the leader in this area. Startups like Bear Flag Robotics, Sabanto, and Monarch are also developing autonomous tractor solutions. Some startups like Rowbot are moving from the large, heavy tractors to fleets of small, lightweight autonomous units, reducing soil compaction. Even field scouting is being automated, replacing walking the field with camera equipped unmanned ground vehicles (Earthsense), satellite monitoring (Aspiring Universe), or inexpensive in-field monitors which continuously scan for pests (Semios, RapidAim, Farmsense).
The need for solutions is even more acute in specialty crops. Increasing the size of a corn planter has been a relatively easy solution, but duplicating the human eye/hand coordination required to identify and gently pick a ripe strawberry or apple demands technologies more akin to robotic surgery. Yet even here we are seeing progress. Abundant Robotics has already commercially deployed its apple harvesting robots with T&G Global, and has raised over $10M from Google and Kubota. Tevel Aerobotics has also made significant progress with its flying autonomous harvesting robots. Even hand weeding is being replaced by robotic weeders (Farmwise, HayBeeSee, Naïo).
With all of these technologies automating various tasks on the farm, the natural question that arises is what’s next for the ag laborer? You can imagine an increase in the number of data analyst, software engineering, and mechanical engineering jobs in the agriculture industry. And even for those workers who remain in the field, the use of automation should drastically reduce exposure to challenging working conditions. But, it’s not easy for people to suddenly transition their skillset, and it’s unlikely that will happen in a quick enough time period to outpace automation gains. Many universities, especially land-grant universities, recognize the need for this skillset transition, and are working hard to provide the necessary training as fast as possible. And while we can remain hopeful that the skillset transition can keep pace with the technical transition, we must also be comfortable with an outcome stating that there are no other options than enhancing one’s digital skillset. Embracing the unknown is part of our human DNA. Automation can be scary in the moment, but long-term it moves us in the right direction.