Friday, September 07, 2007

Advances in farm mechanization seen as future of US agriculture

Aristotle is generally considered to be the greatest philosopher of all time. In Human Accomplishment, Charles Murray put that assertion to the statistical test, and found it to be valid. But the runner-up, who is handicapped by the quixotic nature of his thought, may gain some ground when a new assessment of the literature is done. That is, if the textual basis is expanded beyond encyclopedic sources to include blogs!

That jump will come primarily from a phrase in The Republic (although the tidal wave of genetic information through DNA sequencing that will make eugenic practices standard in the coming decades may further bolster Plato's rating):

The true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention.
So it is, not least in one of settled humanity's oldest industries, agriculture:

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.
Agro-businesses can either perpetually search for cheaper human labor or they can find ways to make the need for that labor obsolete. When still cheaper labor is to be had, the incentives to invest in ways to reach obselscence are reduced. By restricting access to that labor, the new parameters in which the agricultural market operates favor mechinization over the perpetual search more so than when cheap labor is abundant. And so instead of an antiquated peasantry toiling in the fields, we get something better suited to the 21st Century:
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.
Those who argue that an unfettered free market is preferable to the resultant technological advances stemming from immigration restriction have to take a couple of things into account.

Agricultural interests are quite profitable and yet are still heavily subsidized both directly and indirectly (through the use of illegal labor whose tab must be picked up by the citizenry through taxes for education, infrastructure use, health and human services, police and fire use, jails, etc). The status quo is not laissez faire in action. Instead, profits are privatized (and augmented by the government), while expenses are socialized. We're seeing corporate welfare, not the free market, at work.

The contemporary state of the market puts an enormous premium on immediate performance. Consequently, much of the innovation isn't coming from agricultural companies, but from robotics producers and academic institutions that see the future benefit these agricultural companies will reap from new mechinization. The turn toward better technology is inevitable. It is not a question of 'if' but of 'when'. While technological advances may not yet be competitive with cheap labor immediately, the latter has downward limitations that the former is not saddled with.

Pablo Bunyan may still be able to outdo some of the machines that are hitting the market now. But when it comes to picking grapes for premium wines, he's in trouble:
Elsewhere, a team led by wine specialists at California State University, Fresno, is working on an automated picker to further mechanize the wine-grape business.

Growers of low- and mid-grade wine grapes already use mechanical harvesters, but picking and sorting premium grapes still requires a human touch.

The new technology includes a device called a near-infrared spectrometer, which measures the sugar levels and chemical content of grape samples before they are picked, Wample said. The data is then plotted to a global positioning system map, which a mechanical harvester uses to navigate the vineyards and pluck specific bunches at ideal ripeness.

A representative of the California Farm Bureau states it well:
"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.

A low cost of labor is not one of the US economy's core competencies. An unprecedented plummeting in the standard of living would be required for it to become one. Trying to compete on it is necessarily going to require heavy subsidies, as the agricultural industry currently receives, through direct income supplementation as well as through cheap labor that is made so due to subsidization by the public. Better for growers in the world's most innovative state to go the technological route instead.

5 comments:

al fin said...

Excellent point! Automation in agriculture is essential for improved productivity, just as it was in manufacturing, business, accounting, law, medicine, etc.

Next is the construction industry, which is begging for automated methods for shell construction of homes and other small buildings.

Factory made homes are one thing, but factory made homes that look and feel like the best hand made custom homes are on the way. They will last longer with less upkeep also.

Carlos from Anaheim said...

In my debates with the open borders crowd, I have always asked, "What happeneds to the immigrants in agriculture when the stories of Isaac Asimov come to life?" They never have an answer. Maybe it's because they have never read his books.

The Construction Industry could use the help of this robot:
http://www.toyarchive.com/MegaMan/MegaMan2GutsMan1a.jpg

I have also been told by friends who have visited Japan that alot of their fast food is automated. I don't doubt it. Here's one example:
http://skirmisher.org/robotics/japans-latest-humanoid-robot-almost-does-something-actually-useful/
I just browsed their robotic's section and almost every entry is about Japan.

Audacious Epigone said...

Al,

Why have a person do what a machine can do more reliably, frequently, and cheaply?

Carlos,

I'm not very familiar with Asimov's fiction, either. Are you talking about the class/racial strife that frequently occurs (between robots and people, instead of different groups of people)?

More than half of the world's working robots are Japanese. The West has largely decided to replace itself with third-worlders. The Japanese have decided to repalce themselves with machines.

Carlos from Anaheim said...

I was referring to most of our menial jobs becoming mechanized (robotized?).

In the debates I usually bring up immigration to Europe during the 50's to 70's where mainly Muslim immigrants came to do the jobs Whites wouldn't do. We all know what happened. I believe the same result will happen here.

By the way, have you seen the NY Times articles about American farms outsourcing, well, their entire farms to Mexico?

Audacious Epigone said...

Carlos,

Ah, thanks for the clarification.

Yes, we do know what happened.

As for farms outsourcing, that is what should happen to firms competing on the low-cost of labor. It is not a core competency of the US. The huge externalities are not worth it. Let the producers who want to pursue peasant labor on the haciendas do so in Mexico, while those remaining stateside rush into the 21st Century. I have a feeling that in the end, the 21st will come out ahead of the 16th.