November 2, 2023

Agriculture in the Wake of the Hot Labor Summer: Will Farmers Feel the Heat?

In the ever-evolving realm of agriculture, one cannot help but be reminded of the Chinese proverb: “May you live in interesting times.” These are, indeed, interesting times for the agricultural industry, where the intersection of labor organizing, technological innovation and legislative changes paints a complex and intriguing picture.

As we bask in the glow of the “Hot Labor Summer,” a season that has seen a resurgence of labor organizing activities–by screenwriters, actors, auto workers, hotel employees and more–we find ourselves pondering a question of profound consequence: could this wave of worker activism ripple into the fields of western agriculture?

Labor organizing, the catalyst for change in many industries, has an enduring history in our industry. While the United Farm Workers (UFW) boasts a storied legacy as a powerful organizing force during the1970s and ’80s, its activity has been virtually moribund in recent years. The recent passage of California’s AB 113, ushering in the era of card check elections for agricultural labor unions like the UFW, adds a new layer of intrigue to this narrative.

Yet, as we navigate the currents of labor unrest nationally, we find ourselves gazing toward the horizon, where a technological revolution beckons. The Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology (WGCIT)in Salinas is accelerating the pace of innovation, as it works to build ties between start-ups offering real-world solutions and growers. FIRA USA 2023provided a stage for the world’s most innovative minds to showcase autonomous tractors, AI-powered weeders and unmanned spray drones.

In this era of agtech, where drones dance with crops and robots tend to the fields, it is not just the buzz of machinery that resonates. Much like the concerns expressed by writers fearing AI would replace their creative talents, farmworkers too harbor questions about how these technologies will affect their roles and livelihoods. Automation, while promising efficiency and productivity, can cast a shadow of uncertainty over the workforce.

So, what is the path forward? How do we harmonize the chords of labor, innovation and legislation into a symphony of progress?

First, the fears of farmworkers being replaced by automation are understandable yet not insurmountable. The progression of specialty crop automation technology serves as a beacon of hope, as it not only supplements human labor but also allows our workforce to redirect their efforts toward more high-skill tasks. It’s a pivotal step in a broader transformation that calls for the training and preparation of farmworkers for new skills and capabilities to handle these innovative technologies. This era of innovation can be a collective opportunity for our agricultural community, a chance to empower our work force and ensure a thriving, prosperous future for all.

Second, it is essential to engage in a constructive dialogue with our workforce. The concerns of farmworkers, like those of any labor force facing automation, must be heard and addressed. We must clearly communicate how the promise of agtech will also bring prosperity to those who work in our fields.

Furthermore, as legislative changes reshape the labor landscape, it is incumbent upon us to adapt and build strong relationships with our workers. This transition serves as a reminder that as responsible employers, we should continue offering competitive pay and benefits, listen to grievances and engage with workers, ensuring they understand that they don’t need unions to secure a safe workplace, fair wages and benefits, and respect.

In this polarizing climate, we find ourselves at a crossroads—a nexus of labor, innovation and legislation. It is a place where the past meets the future, where the plow and the robot converge and where the heart of agriculture beats strong. In these interesting times, we must navigate this terrain with wisdom, compassion and an unwavering commitment to the values that have sustained our industry for generations.

The true measure of our success lies not only in our yield but also in the harmony we cultivate within our agricultural community. As stewards of our land, job creators and catalysts f prosperity to our communities, it is through unity, empathy and innovation that we shall chart a course toward a future where the fields remain fertile and productive, the workforce thrives and agriculture stands as a testament to resilience and progress.