Many rural California economies revolve around agriculture, which produces healthy fruits, nuts, and vegetables, as well as crop revenues and local jobs for both agriculture and service industries that support agriculture. To maintain these rural economies, three major problems need to be addressed—labor, water and food safety. California’s annual crop output produces close to $50 billion annually, and Monterey County is a top five producer with $4 billion in crop revenue in 2021. Service industries provide significant additional GDP to support the crop revenue in agricultural towns and counties.
Labor remains the most challenging agriculture problem for specialty crop farmers in California and is really two problems in one. First, the cost of labor continues to increase due to regulatory changes. From 2005 to 2017, the regulatory cost per acre per year for specialty crop growers went from $109 to $977, a 795 percent increase. Second, the availability of labor continues to decrease. The clearest indicator of this decrease is the growth in H-2A labor, which helps growers access international labor via a federal permit system. The use of H-2A has gone from 48,000 immigrant farm workers in 2005 to 275,000 in 2020. Many farmers I talk to are considering increasing their usage of H-2A labor because it is more predictable and reliable than domestic labor sources. This introduces a new risk to farmers. Products that are planted, weeded, watered, and grown cannot get harvested without labor if a permit is not approved in a timely fashion.
The combination of higher cost and decreased availability are pushing a lot of growers to aggressively look for automation solutions. There is good progress in some sectors, with investment in thinning, weeding, and planting startups and new innovations in market with field trials and beginning to scale. But the startups are very early, even today. Research that was published in the first (annual) Western Growers Harvest Automation Report indicates that 75 percent of startups in the ag automation space have no venture capital yet, and are funded with founder capital, friends and family capital, and angel investments. The other 25 percent have an A or B round. None of them have a C round. This means that 3 out of 4 are not done building their first real product, and 1 out of 4 are not yet ready to scale their sales and marketing efforts.
Over the next several years, it is likely that some of the startups in market will begin to raise capital to scale and some new startups will emerge and successfully fundraise. Labor prices will continue to go up, which will increase the need for automation. Ironically, the growth in harvest automation startups and their fundraising will create the next challenge—finding a new type of labor, highly skilled agtech labor that understands agronomy, computer science, biology and engineering. These workers are needed to help build the robots, sell the robots, manage the robots and fix the robots. In some cases, the management and fixing will need to happen quickly, or the harvest may not happen fast enough and the crop may spoil before getting picked.
Producing these new agtech workers will be the job of community colleges in rural communities, as well as high schools and non-profits. In Monterey County, Hartnell College will help train these new workers at their main campus in Salinas and at satellite campuses in towns like King City. King City High School will work with the Hartnell satellite to get their students trained. Non-profits like Rancho Cielo will be able to train Salinas Valley youth these new skills. The best part—all three options can leverage curriculum that Western Growers is working on developing with the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Thanks to a $750,000 grant from CDFA, Western Growers is going to spend the next 3.5 years identifying the biggest skills gaps for growers and then identifying existing curriculum modules that can be spread throughout the state. Each community college will build its own curriculum content (and four-year universities are building some as well), and Western Growers will aggregate and help make the modules available statewide to community colleges, high schools, and non-profits so all can re-use without having to build the materials themselves. The goal is to have 3,000 students earn Western Growers certificates in the next 3.5 years. They will be WG certificates because it doesn’t matter which location the new workers are educated in, only that they completed the certificate requirements.
Western Growers is proud to be working with our grower members and local agtech institutions on this program, and excited to watch the results and the impact on local communities as these new employees enter the work force and help push the automation initiatives further faster.