In farm work, hand harvesting is performed only using hand tools, including knives and/or shears, and only applies to work with crops grown in soil. After produce is harvested, it’s placed in baskets or bins for transportation.
On the other hand, machine picking typically refers to a mechanical harvester that travels through rows or fields to shake produce from its source be it trees or bushes. In some cases, it mows over plants to strip them as a collection process.
Machine harvesting is arguably one of the biggest advancements in agriculture, and, yes: it certainly has its advantages. It’s often cheaper than hand harvesting, particularly with certain crops, which alleviates the labor-intensive harvest season. No specific crop training is required for each worker, and the mechanical method is significantly faster in its approach because there is little differentiation between “good” fruits (i.e. ripe).
However, there are disadvantages to mechanical harvesting as well, significantly this inability to detect which fruit or vegetable is prime for picking (although technological is constantly trying to improve on issues like these). Machines are unable to maneuver on hillsides and slopes without rollovers or crushing operators. Furthermore, machinery is not cheap and so is often impractical for all but large farm operations.
Still, if cost on a large farm is the critical factor in methods of harvesting, it seems like mechanization wins. So, what argument remains for hand harvesting?
Well, it is not simply about cost. Mechanization can be a slower method if you choose to invest in the technology to incorporate cameras to pick only the ripe “good” fruit. It can only access certain terrain, and harvest quality can be affected. Also, although it requires fewer workers, it does present a new set of physical challenges such as vibration hazards. It still often seems growers are willing to make the bulk investment for machinery instead of relying on farmworkers to hand harvest, which requires paying them a living wage instead of piece rate and providing better-designed tools to do the job.
Since hand harvesting is where piece rate is usually offered – tying the workers ability to function at high speed to earning a sufficient wage and yielding a sufficient crop – it is also where we begin to see preventable injuries occurring. As workers pick up the pace safety can fall by the wayside: especially during peak season.
That’s where ergonomics come into play: in this case, the study of the way that equipment can be designed so that it produces the best working conditions for the user while increasing efficiency. One of the reasons hand harvesting has such low production capacity is because of the high job turnover, which is a direct result of musculoskeletal disorders and injuries. It is very physically demanding and requires more research: not necessarily on what problems it causes, but on how to improve the equipment being used by workers such as, shears or collection bags.
In certain states like Arizona, actions have been taken to provide more comforts for the workers thus improving productivity levels, such as adding shaded areas to limit exposure to the elements and blowers for cooling workers wearing the proper protective equipment. One example of this is placing workers on a tractor with a conveyer belt assembly line, thereby minimizing the opportunity for workers to injure themselves trying to keep pace.
Granted – whether or not to use hand harvesting or mechanized harvesting is often times specific to crop and environment. Both have their tradeoffs. These days with the constant battle of available workers and immigration many agricultural establishments are turning towards mechanized approaches if they can afford it just to feel secure that their crops won’t wither in the fields.
Still, Americans do not like ugly produce, which is a point in favor of hand harvested crops. Why not take the time, energy, and funds necessary to produce the inexpensive new tools or modify the existing ones to reduce injury risk to farmworkers? With a fair investment in our workers alongside critical health and safety training, we can create a safer environment for those doing the backbreaking labor to put food on our tables.