Saturday, September 08, 2007

Farmers Considering Mechanization

There. I've said it before. And now the AP said it Thursday.

With authorities promising tighter borders, some farmers who rely on immigrant labor are eyeing an emerging generation of fruit-picking robots and high-tech tractors to do everything from pluck premium wine grapes to clean and core lettuce.

Such machines, now in various stages of development, could become essential for harvesting delicate fruits and vegetables that are still picked by hand.

"If we want to maintain our current agriculture here in California, that's where mechanization comes in," said Jack King, national affairs manager for the California Farm Bureau.

See? I told you so. (I love saying that. Especially because I don't get to say it very often. It has its own special joy.)

More than half of all farm workers in the country are illegal immigrants, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

Last year, amid heightened immigration enforcement, California's seasonal migration was marked by spot worker shortages, and some fruit was left to rot in the fields.

Mechanized picking wouldn't be new for some California crops such as canning tomatoes, low-grade wine grapes and nuts.

But the fresh produce that dominates the state's agricultural output — and that consumers expect to find unblemished in supermarkets — is too fragile to be picked by the machines now in use.

The new pickers rely on advances in computing power and hydraulics that can make robotic limbs and digits operate with near-human sensitivity. Modern imaging technology also enables the machines to recognize and sort fruits and vegetables of varying qualities.

"The technology is maturing just at the right time to allow us to do this kind of work economically," said Derek Morikawa, whose San Diego-based Vision Robotics has been working with the California Citrus Research Board and Washington State Apple Commission to develop a fruit picker.

Back before the Civil War, when Congress would debate slavery, the argument from the South was always the same: Their economy--their whole way of life--depended on slavery, and disaster would befall them if slavery were to be abolished.

Funny, but that's the same argument we've been getting from the open-borders lobby. They say we need the illegals to be our farm workers. The only thing is, it's not true. We really can mechanize more of our agriculture. All we need now is for the right people to get to work innovating.

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