Machines Could Cut Worker Shortage

Machines could cut worker shortage
Expert: Farmers too reliant on cheap labor

Daniel Gonzlez
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 21, 2006 12:00 AM

When the federal government ended the Bracero program in 1964, U.S. tomato farmers were in an uproar.

Without Mexican workers, there would be no one left to pick tomatoes, they complained.

Until then, almost all of California's 45,000 tomato pickers were Mexicans, employed under the temporary-worker program that was created in the 1940s to offset labor shortages by men going off to fight in World War II.

Farmers predicted the tomato industry wouldn't survive without them. Instead, the industry flourished.

Within six years, machines replaced the workers. By being forced to modernize, farmers improved productivity.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” said Phillip Martin, an agriculture professor at the University of California-Davis.

Today, farmers are again clamoring for an expanded guest-worker program they say is needed to offset worsening labor shortages.

But Martin believes farmers have become too dependent on immigrant labor. Instead, they should be investing more in machinery to harvest crops.

But that won't happen as long as farmers have access to a bottomless pool of immigrant labor.

“It's kind of illogical to keep importing workers,” he said.

Doug Mellon, who grows 10,000 acres of vegetables a year in Yuma, said Martin may have a point.

He remembers when the Bracero program ended.

“We didn't know how we were going to pick the cotton, but then machines came along,” he said.

Some farmers insist lettuce, Yuma's main crop, is too fragile to be picked by machine.

In 1964, farmers said the same about tomatoes.