The current economic and political climate has afforded plenty of job opportunities for prospective farmworkers.  However, due to ever-evolving workforce conditions, there has been a noticeable shortage of willing and able candidates.  In fact, according to CalAgJobs, a California-based agricultural recruiting service, “there are two jobs available in agriculture for every job seeker across the nation.”  Interestingly enough, an increasing population drives the market and a growing demand for food.  Meanwhile, the demand for agricultural workers is expected to remain unchanged, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  A paradox though it may seem, it is the shift toward the mechanization of farms that is expected to displace human labor in the coming years.

Fewer workers and emerging technology have catalyzed the ‘smart farm’ revolution.  More and more farm owners are looking for alternatives to farmhand-operated agriculture.  In 2014, Octinion, a Belgian based engineering company, announced, “We start with an ambitious project: building a picking robot for strawberries.”  By 2016, the prototype was complete, and in early February 2019, Octinion debuted and announced the commercial launch of its first fully-automated strawberry picking and sorting machine.  The company is setting its sights on the future of agriculture in a statement that reads, “Don’t worry about finding the right people, but focus on tomorrow. The future starts now.”   Rubion, the highly sophisticated automated production assistant, can pick one strawberry every three seconds, on par with the average human, with costs ranging between $113,000 and $169,000 per unit.

Three farmworkers bend over to pull weeds in a field full of lush green plants. One farmworker has a red t-shirt on and blue jeans and is holding a hoe. A large tractor is visible in the background, sitting idle while the operator pauses to talk with a fourth farmworker.
Farmworkers tend crops while a large tractor is being operated in a neighboring field. Photo by AFOP Health & Safety.

Similar products on the market are finding it difficult to compete with their human counterparts.  Precision technology that is firm enough to twist and detach yet gentle enough to preserve the delicate flesh of a peach is a work in progress.  On a busy farm in Florida, workers put a berry picking machine to shame.  Harv, Harvest CROO Robotic’s fully automated strawberry harvester, was developed to replace a crew of about 30 farmworkers.  When put to the test, Harv was able to harvest with a 20 percent success rate compared with a human’s 80 percent.

With fewer hands and more circuits in the fields, farmworker safety and health come to mind.  Namely, what are the safety factors?

According to a 2018 white paper by UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS), worker safety plays a key role in developing technology for the field:

“Approaches to safe physical Human Robot Interaction (pHRI) include supervisory systems to monitor the interaction and adjust the behavior of the robot if an unsafe situation is identified.  This typically involves slowing, or completely stopping the robot, to prevent accidents.  A further approach to ensuring safe pHRI is to design robot systems which are inherently safe, meaning that if collisions occur between human and machine, injury will not result.  The aim is to replicate the safe interaction that occurs when multiple people work collaboratively.  This requires a change away from heavy, rigid and high inertia robots to systems which are more akin to biological creatures.”

A small yellow tractor with large arms held aloft cuts away pieces of leaves and branches in an orchard of lemon trees in Arizona. Dust and leaves obscure the view of the tractor. A dirt road is in the foreground.
A tractor prunes lemon trees in a field in Arizona.

Another potential glimmer of optimism for safety and health advocates lies in the electrification of farm vehicles and other farm equipment.  Overall, electric-operated machinery produces fewer overall emissions than diesel fuel technology.  Additionally, the brute force factor of most existing technology, e.g., lumbering harvesters, threshers and bulky tractors, pose major safety hazards. “Therefore,” according to RAS, “there are potentially major health and safety benefits to electrification and automation of farm equipment.

On the other hand, new farming technology is in its infancy; machines break down, deal with viruses and require troubleshooting.  These days, farmworkers work side-by-side with harvesting equipment and technology.  A malfunctioning robot may be unpredictable and difficult to manage.  Farmworkers are obliged to stay aware of their surroundings and alert others of potential or impending danger.

We are experiencing a technological revolution that, like the Industrial Revolution, is marked by radical changes to industry, agriculture, and the economy.  Existing trades and skills have been relegated to obscurity as new jobs and skills sets have become highly sought-after.  The outlook for agricultural workers, according to BLS data, appears bleak, with little to no increase in the number of available jobs.  However, that same data revealed that “Employment of agricultural equipment operators is projected to increase 6 percent, about as fast as the average for all occupations, and faster than any other type of agricultural worker. Increased use of mechanization on farms is expected to lead to more jobs for agricultural equipment operators relative to farmworkers and laborers.”  This marks a point in time when opportunities arise to overcome.

A large blue tractor is coming down the road towards the camera. It is dwarfed by two rows of huge blue mountains in the background. The road is flanked by trees and telephone poles.
A tractor lumbers down the road on a farm in Puerto Rico.

Health & safety training is still a must in order to avoid fatalities and injuries on the job – even if that training has to evolve along with the job.  For example, more mechanical safety training and equipment operator training will most likely be required, much the way we emphasize tractor safety training now.  We can also imagine increased safety hazards whenever certain pieces of equipment malfunction.  So, part of future safety training could include specialized instructions on how to bring that piece of equipment back online, and how to continue to do the job until it’s repaired.

No matter what, the AFOP Health & Safety network of trainers is committed to providing multiple types of occupational health and safety training to the farmworker community, empowering them to stay safe and healthy.  Because, even as technology rapidly develops, the end of the need for human labor in agriculture, one way or another, is still nowhere in sight.