Further Notes on the Mechanization of Agricultural Work

by Reihan Salam

A few weeks ago, I argued that the mechanization of routine tasks was unlikely to leave agricultural labor untouched, citing the “Lettuce Bot” — a device that can thin a lettuce field about as well as 20 agricultural laborers — as a sign of things to come. A new article by David Sherwood of Reuters describes how mechanization has shaped the agricultural labor market in rural Maine:

Jobs previously filled by those with dubious documents haven’t transferred to Americans, as some proponents of E-Verify anticipated. Instead, many of Maine’s largest growers have pushed to mechanize the harvest, eliminating many of the once-coveted seasonal jobs.

It is an unexpected consequence, observers said, of decades of uncertainty and political wrangling over immigration reform.

“Whether you’re running a business or a family, everyone here just wants some long-term clarity on the issue. You can’t plan for five years ahead because you don’t know what the law will look like,” said Ian Yaffe, executive director of Mano en Mano, a local group that aids migrant farm workers.

It seems that entrepreneurs and inventors really can find a way to substitute capital for labor in agricultural work. To be sure, this progress may well slow down if the U.S. decides to permit a large-scale influx of less-skilled agricultural workers. But if we assume that Moore’s law will continue to hold for at least a while, it’s hard to see the march towards mechanization actually coming to a halt. This implies that mechanization will lead to the displacement of many less-skilled agricultural workers, and that the U.S. public sector will be obligated to help these workers adapt to a changing economic environment. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.