Saturday, June 23, 2007


Imagine, for a moment, that you're a California farmer -- you own a few hundred acres with orange groves. You and your buddies, when you're talking over a few glasses of orange-jack (fermented orange juice), get to talking about the future of orange picking...

Things don't look so good, you all agree. That transient illegal immigrant labor force your industry has depended on for a hundred years really does look like it's about to evaporate. Between amnesty and Z-1 visas, the one thing it appears you can be certain of is that your labor costs are about to go up dramatically. Labor shortages look like a very real possibility.

So what do you do?

You use the collective power of your agriculture associations to fund robotics development, of course!

Vision Robotics, a San Diego company, is working on a pair of robots that would trundle through orchards plucking oranges, apples or other fruit from the trees. In a few years, troops of these machines could perform the tedious and labor-intensive task of fruit picking that currently employs thousands of migrant workers each season.

The robotic work has been funded entirely by agricultural associations, and pushed forward by the uncertainty surrounding the migrant labor force. Farmers are "very, very nervous about the availability and cost of labor in the near future," says Vision Robotics CEO Derek Morikawa.

The economics of robots are compelling if you're a businessman (as all farmers are). A $500,000 robot might sound like a very expensive investment -- but that works out to about a $5,500 per month expense, and that's downright cheap for a machine that can pick fruit 8 or 10 times as fast as a human worker, and can work 24 x 7.

When we start seeing these devices in our fields, it's really going to start feeling like we're living in a science fiction story! The implications to our immigration problems are all good, so far as I can suss them out. In effect, converting low-skill agricultural jobs to robotics will remove the biggest incentives -- both for the immigrants and for business -- to the kind of undesirable transient immigration that is hurting us today.

Is anyone surprised to see that a solution is coming from the private sector, instead of the government?

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