Agriculture looks to innovation amid labor shortages and trade rows

Global Business

Embroiled in the U.S. trade conflict and facing labor shortages, American farmers are turning to automation. At the Forbes Agtech Summit in Salinas, California, these issues are being discussed with a heavy focus on how technology may be the industry’s best hope.

CGTN’s Mark Niu reports.

At the Forbes Agtech Summit in Salinas, California, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Stephen Censky told a crowd that theTrump administration has been aggressive toward agricultural trading partners in hopes of bringing them to the table. Censky said another key focus is boosting the ag sector through technology.

“Closing the digital divide that exists in between rural America and urban America today,” stressed Censky.

“We tend to think of the traditional farmer patiently planting seeds and the like, but what you see now is you are learning more and more about soils in a way that we never did before,” Steve Forbes, Editor-in-Chief, Forbes told CGTN. “We can monitor crops, almost individual crops now. Automation is coming along.”

The demand for automation is driven by necessity. All the red tape involved in hiring and fewer people interested in working the fields – have combined to slash the migrant work force. It’s helped fuel interest in technologies like this self-driving tractor from Silicon Valley’s Bear Flag robotics. It can drive autonomously even where there’s no GPS signal.

“The rising cost of labor, the difficulty of finding qualified reliable machines operators, it’s getting extremely tricky,” said Igino Cafiero, Co-founder & CEO, Bear Flag Robotics. “And so, when were introduced to this problem by my friends who are farmers and growers, we realized we could really help them.”

And in order to replace the manual labor of having to move produce out from the fields, Augean Robotics has created the autonomous wheelbarrow. If you put it into follow mode, it uses computer vision to follow you wherever you go without running you over.

By some estimates, automation could wipe out as many as 800 million jobs around the world by the end of the next decade. On American farms it isn’t the jobs that are disappearing, it’s the workers. Bruce Taylor is the founder Taylor Farms—the world’s largest processor of fresh-cut vegetables. While he said every one of his 14 U.S. plants is still struggling to find labor, advances in automation are helping to keep the problem from spiraling out of control.

“We are using technology throughout our organization. So, in food safety we are looking at a rapid response pathogen test, for example. We’ve rolled out about 60% of our harvest now is now automated,” said Taylor. “It used to be stoop labor, just a miserable job, back-breaking jobs. Now the machines cut the product, brings it up to a table where people can work at it under cover in the shade, in a much more comfortable position.”

Taylor said here in Salinas technology isn’t creating job vacancies, it’s helping to fill them.

“It’s much easier to find people for those jobs, because they are much more pleasant jobs,” said Taylor.