(OPE-L) In Florida Groves, Cheap Labor Means Machines

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Mon Mar 22 2004 - 11:23:13 EST


March 22, 2004

In Florida Groves, Cheap Labor Means Machines

MMOKALEE, Fla. - Chugging down a row of trees, the pair of canopy
shakers in Paul Meador's orange grove here seem like a cross between
a bulldozer and a hairbrush, their hungry steel bristles working
through the tree crowns as if untangling colossal heads of hair.

In under 15 minutes, the machines shake loose 36,000 pounds of
oranges from 100 trees, catch the fruit and drop it into a large
storage car. "This would have taken four pickers all day long," Mr.
Meador said.

Canopy shakers are still an unusual sight in Florida's orange groves.
Most of the crop is harvested by hand, mainly by illegal Mexican
immigrants. Nylon sacks slung across their backs, perched atop
16-foot ladders, they pluck oranges at a rate of 70 to 90 cents per
90-pound box, or less than $75 a day.

But as globalization creeps into the groves, it is threatening to
displace the workers. Facing increased competition from Brazil and a
glut of oranges on world markets, alarmed growers here have been
turning to labor-saving technology as their best hope for survival.

"The Florida industry has to reduce costs to stay in business," said
Everett Loukonen, agribusiness manager for the Barron Collier
Company, which uses shakers to harvest about half of the 40.5 million
pounds of oranges reaped annually from its 10,000 acres in
southwestern Florida. "Mechanical harvesting is the only available
way to do that today."

Global competition is pressing American farmers on many fronts.
American raisins are facing competition from Chile and Turkey. For
fresh tomatoes, the challenge comes from Mexico. China, whose Fuji
apples have displaced Washington's Golden Delicious from most Asian
markets - and whose apple juice has swamped the United States - is
cutting into American farmers' markets for garlic, broccoli and a
host of other crops.

So even while President Bush advances a plan to invite legal guest
workers into American fields, farmers for the first time in a
generation are working to replace hand laborers with machines.

"The rest of the world hand-picks everything, but their wage rates
are a fraction of ours," said Galen Brown, who led the mechanical
harvesting program at the Florida Department of Citrus until his
retirement last year. Lee Simpson, a raisin grape grower in
California's San Joaquin Valley, is more blunt. "The cheap labor," he
said, "isn't cheap enough."

Mr. Simpson and other growers have devised a system that increases
yields and cuts the demand for workers during the peak harvest time
by 90 percent; rather than cutting grapes by hand and laying them out
to dry, the farmers let the fruit dry on the vine before it is
harvested mechanically.

Some fruit-tree growers in Washington State have introduced a machine
that knocks cherries off the tree onto a conveyor belt; they are
trying to perfect a similar system for apples. Strawberry growers in
Ventura County, Calif., developed a mobile conveyor belt to move full
strawberry boxes from the fields to storage bins, cutting demand for
workers by a third. And producers of leaf lettuce and spinach for bag
mixes have introduced mechanical cutters.

American farmers have been dragging machines into their fields at
least since the mid-19th century, when labor shortages during the
Civil War drove a first wave of mechanical harvesting. Mechanization
grew apace for the following 100-plus years, taking over the
harvesting of crops including wheat, corn, cotton and sugar cane.

But not all crops were easily adaptable to machines. Whole fruit and
vegetables - the most lucrative and labor intensive crops, employing
four of every five seasonal field workers - require delicate
handling. Mechanization sometimes meant rearranging the fields,
planting new types of vines or trees and retrofitting packing plants.

Rather than make such investments, farmers mostly focused on lobbying
government for easier access to inexpensive labor. California
growers, the biggest fruit and vegetable producers in the nation,
persuaded the government to admit Mexican workers during World War I.
Later, from 1942 to 1964, 4.6 million Mexican farm workers were
admitted into the country under the bracero guest-worker program.

Investment in technology generally happened when the immigrant spigot
was shut. After the bracero program ended and some farm wages began
to rise, scientists at the University of California at Davis began
work on both a machine to harvest tomatoes mechanically and a tomato
better suited to mechanical harvesting.

By 1970, the number of tomato-harvest jobs had been cut by
two-thirds. But the tomato harvester's success proved to be a kiss of
death for mechanical harvesting. In 1979, the farm worker advocacy
group California Rural Legal Assistance, with support from the United
Farm Workers union of Cesar Chavez, sued U.C. Davis, charging that it
was using public money for research that displaced workers and helped
only big growers.

The lawsuit was eventually settled. But even before that, in 1980,
President Jimmy Carter's agriculture secretary, Bob Bergland,
declared that the government would no longer finance research
projects intended to replace "an adequate and willing work force with
machines." Today, the Agricultural Research Service employs just one
agricultural engineer: Donald Peterson, a longtime researcher at the
Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, W.Va.

"At one time I was told to keep a low profile and not to publicize
what I was doing," Mr. Peterson said.

As the government pulled out, growers lost interest as well,
refocusing on Congress instead. In 1986, farmers were instrumental in
winning passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which
legalized nearly three million illegal immigrants - more than a third
under a special program for agriculture.

Farmers' investments in labor-saving technology all but froze, and
gains in labor productivity slowed. From 1986 to 1999, farm labor
inputs fell 2.4 percent, after a drop of 35 percent in the preceding
14 years. Meanwhile, farmers' capital investments fell 46.7 percent
from their peak in 1980 through 1999.

About 45 vegetable and fruit crops planted over 3.6 million acres of
land, and worth about $13 billion at the farm gate, are still
harvested by hand, by a labor force made up mostly of illegal
immigrants. On average, farm workers earned $6.18 an hour, less than
half the average wage for private, nonfarm workers, in 1998, the year
of the Labor Department's most recent survey of agricultural workers.

Florida's orange groves have reflected the broader trends. In the
1980's, a 20-year research effort into mechanical harvesting ground
to a halt. With frosts upstate taking 200,000 acres out of
production, orange prices soared and the demand for labor fell.

But as is often the case in agriculture, farmers overreacted to the
market's strength, flocking to plant groves among the vegetable
patches, pastures and swamps in the southwestern part of the state.
By the early 1990's, the market looked poised for a glut. With the
prospect of bumper crops in Brazil, where harvesting costs are about
one-third as high as in Florida, a crisis loomed - driving orange
growers back into technology's embrace.

In 1995, the growers decided to plow $1 million to $1.5 million a
year into research in mechanical harvesting. By the 1999-2000
harvest, the growers had achieved their technological breakthrough,
with four different harvesting machines working commercially. Last
year, machines harvested 17,000 acres of the state's 600,000 acres
planted in juice oranges, said Fritz M. Roka, an agricultural
economist at the University of Florida.

"Mechanical harvesting is the biggest change in the Florida citrus
industry since we switched to aluminum ladders," said Will Elliott,
general manager of Coe-Collier Citrus Harvesting, one of seven
commercial contractors that are shaking trunks and brushing canopies
around the state.

Mr. Brown, the retired Department of Citrus official, estimates that
in five years, machines will harvest 100,000 acres of oranges here.
But there are obstacles. Machines work best on the big, regularly
spaced, groomed young groves in the southwest, and some do not work
at all on the smaller, older, more irregular acreage in central
Florida. Machines are hard to use on Valencia orange trees, because
shaking them risks prematurely dislodging much of the following
year's harvest.

Still, the economics are in mechanization's favor. A tariff of 29
cents per pound on imports of frozen concentrated orange juice lets
Florida growers resist the Brazilian onslaught - but not by much.
According to Ronald Muraro and Thomas Spreen, researchers at the
University of Florida, Brazil could deliver a pound of frozen
concentrate in the United States for under 75 cents, versus 99 cents
for a Florida grower.

Mechanical harvesting can help cut the gap. Mr. Loukonen of Barron
Collier estimates that machine harvesting shaves costs by 8 to 10
cents a pound of frozen concentrate.

The spread of mechanization could redraw the profile of Immokalee,
which today is a rather typical American farming town. Seventy-one
percent of the population of 20,000 is Latino - with much of the
balance coming from Haiti - and 46 percent of the residents are
foreign born, according to the 2000 census. About 40 percent of the
residents live under the poverty line, and the median family income
is below $23,000 - less than half that of the United States as a

Philip Martin, an economist at U.C. Davis, points to the poverty as
an argument in favor of labor-saving technology. He estimates that
about 10 percent of immigrant farm workers leave the fields every
year to seek better jobs. Rather than push more farmhands out of
work, he contends, introducing machines will simply reduce the demand
for new workers to replenish the labor pool.

And there are some beneficiaries among workers: those lucky enough to
operate the new gear. Perched in the air-conditioned booth of Mr.
Meador's canopy shaker, a jumpy ranchera tune crackling from the
radio, Felix Real, a former picker, said he can make up to $120 a day
driving the contraption down the rows, about twice as much as he used
to make.

Yet many Immokalee workers are nervous. "They are using the machines
on the good groves and leaving us with the scraggly ones," said
Venancio Torres, an immigrant from Mexico's coastal state of Veracruz
who has been picking oranges in Florida for three years.

Mr. Loukonen, the Barron Collier manager, said the farm workers were
right to be anxious. "If there's no demand for labor, supply will
end," he said. "They will have to find another place to work, or stay
in their country."

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