The inaugural AgSharks™ Competition took place last week at our Western Growers Annual Meeting in Las Vegas, and the outcome was both unexpected and sensational! Six agtech start-up companies pitched their technologies—everything from robots that cart berries up and down the field to little sachets that reduce decay and extend the shelf life of fresh produce—to a group of investors and farmers. The result? Two startups received a $2.25 million total equity investment offer from S2G Ventures to help bring their product from development to market.
AgSharks was our latest effort to advance agtech, and we will continue to implement these types of initiatives to bring about technology that will solve agriculture’s biggest issues, including labor. The U.S. Department of Labor recently reported that there has been a 15 percent increase in the number of H-2A (the temporary ag worker program) applications received, compared to the same time last year. In California alone, the number of jobs certified rose from 2,600 in 2006 to over 11,000 in 2016 and climbing. Given the significant expenses and bureaucratic headaches of the broken H-2A program, this is a clear indication that our industry is facing a severe labor shortage.
The fact is, agriculture has been at a labor deficit for more than a decade. Over the past few years, the number of farmworkers who are migrating to the U.S. from Mexico has dropped, exacerbating this shortage. It is a well-established fact that Americans will not work in our fields, regardless of higher wages. Absent an immigration solution that provides U.S. farms with access to a legal, stable supply of foreign workers—and no, the Goodlatte AG Act is not sufficient in its current form—farmers and ag-related businesses are looking into ways to support mechanization and automation to help solve their labor woes. If they don’t, there will be no such thing as local (or domestically-grown) fresh produce.
In light of this drive toward mechanization and automation, there seems to be a myth floating around that technological advancements will mean the elimination of jobs in the fields. This argument is flawed. Sure, certain types of jobs will be eliminated, but mechanized labor requires a different set of skills in the field (related to science, technology, engineering and math) and actually creates more high-paying jobs. As Chris Rotticci of Automated Harvesting explains in this video, automation allows farmers to improve the working environment for their employees and attract and retain talented labor.
Who knows, these might even become jobs that Americans will want to do.