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Mechanizing fruit and vegetable production

US farm labor dynamics and the quest for mechanization

Since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), the U.S. has maintained approximately 2.5 million hired farm workers. IRCA, which legalized 1.1 million unauthorized workers and facilitated the hiring of H-2A guestworkers, was driven by the expectation that legalization would lead to higher wages and improved working conditions. However, the Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) program was plagued by fraud, contributing to a scenario where, since the mid-1990s, half of the U.S. crop farm workforce has been unauthorized.

Mechanization has historically driven agricultural productivity, enabling fewer farmers to feed more people. Yet, the mechanization of fresh fruit and vegetable harvesting remains challenging due to the unpredictability of outdoor settings. The sector, particularly focused on crops like apples, oranges, strawberries, lettuce, and tomatoes, still heavily relies on manual labor. Mechanization strategies highlight the ease of once-over harvesting and the challenges of selective harvesting, where machines must differentiate between ripe and unripe produce. Despite technological advancements, the preference for fresh produce over processed variants hampers the pace of harvest mechanization.

The push for mechanization not only requires technological innovation but also a systems perspective that encompasses the entire farm-to-consumer supply chain. This includes adjustments in farming practices, processing, and consumer acceptance of machine-harvested produce. As the U.S. grapples with labor shortages and the inefficiencies of manual labor, the evolution towards mechanization in agriculture continues to be a complex yet inevitable transition.


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