But what you probably haven’t seen is how much more work autonomous machines and drones are doing on the farm as the minimum wage ticked up a dollar in California this year, heading toward $15 an hour for larger employers across the Golden State, effective 2022.
Automation has been plucking away at the work humans have to do on the farm for decades. Machines now milk cows, unearth vegetables and package products faster and more cheaply than humans can. But now, in the age of artificial intelligence, robots and computer vision are enabling mechanisms to do even more.
This comes as drones become more commonplace, too, enabling ranchers to monitor plants and livestock from above.
It all contributes to what’s known as precision agriculture, where farmers use less to grow more or adopt new gadgets to increase crop production while cutting down on waste. The field is increasing in popularity. The market for advanced farming tools was estimated to be about $7 billion in 2020, and it’s projected to reach $12.8 billion over the next four years, according to the research firm MarketsandMarkets.
Part of the projected rise stems from farms wanting greater efficiency in the face of labor issues. The number of people working as farmers, ranchers and other agricultural professionals is expected to drop 6 percent by 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The industry has already faced decades of job declines in the United States, even as agricultural production rises to feed a growing population.
The firm buys the 15-feet-tall vehicles from dealerships, suits them up with navigation systems and lets growers rent them.
The company works with farmers to set up a boundary map of the area that needs work. Its algorithm plots a path for the tractor to follow, and the equipment uses that pattern to traverse a field. Farming operations pay per acre to use them.
“The machines don’t know that it’s Friday at five o’clock. They can just keep running, and do the job properly, regardless of what the time clock says,” Ruiz said. “They’re programmable and sometimes do a better job because they operate at the right speed.”
It’s true that AI-powered farm machines may one day be able to perform most tasks that require people today. But for the time being, humans have a leg up in some areas, such as handling delicate objects. Robots tend to have dexterity problems, which can cause them to hold objects like fruit and vegetables too aggressively.
“You don’t go to the grocery store and buy an apple that’s all bruised and brown,” Velasquez, of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, said. “So some things are going to continue to require human hands.”