By Carte Adrien

You’ve probably noticed a shortage of workers in most sectors of the US economy. While the reasons vary from reluctance over COVID-19 and childcare constraints to disincentives for unemployment benefits, you can guess industries that require significant physical effort outdoors, such as farm work. production, tend to be the least choice for workers when other sectors demand new hires, offering higher wages and integration bonuses.

Indeed, preliminary results from the CSU extension of the 2020 Colorado Farm Labor Survey for Employers indicate that this is not a new issue for production farm businesses, with an increasing trend. the inability to secure a full workforce over the past five years, from a minimum shortage of 7% in 2016 to an increase in the shortage of 15% year over year ‘other in 2020.

While wages are always part of the answer to recruiting workers, 77% of Colorado production farms that responded to the survey pay entry-level workers $ 13 or more per hour, 35% pay $ 15 to $ 18 an hour. That’s higher than the 2020 U.S. wage for all unsupervised farm workers, at nearly $ 15 an hour.

Salaries make up 30% of fruit and vegetable farm operating budgets, and 69% of Boulder County fruit and vegetable farms struggle to stay profitable with the wages they pay. These employers assume that the top three reasons they cannot attract workers are the seasonal nature of the work (often April to October), physical labor is too difficult for most, and a general lack of interest in being. farm workers.

With King Soopers starting their employees at $ 18 an hour year-round and mostly in an air-conditioned building, it’s understandable that those who qualify for these jobs choose groceries over fieldwork.

USDA’s Economic Research Service notes that the average age of farm workers – foreign-born and US-born – in the United States continues to rise, from 36 in 2006 to almost 40. in 2019. Meanwhile, the continued increase in H-2A (Temporary Foreign Farm Worker Visas) workers in Colorado and nationwide indicate a decrease in the supply of workers residing in the United States.

Closer to home, both statewide and Boulder County, responses to the 2020 survey of fruit and vegetable growers show both a reduction in acres of produce grown and an intention to mechanize more. in response to unresolved challenges to recruit and retain a viable workforce. The first is not satisfactory for those who like local products, but how to access the second?

Colorado is not a premier producing state compared to the coastal champions (California, Florida, etc.) and as such is not currently the home of agricultural technology. However, where there is a larger market for mechanization (replaces muscle) and automation (replaces decision making), we see the next revolution in agriculture emerge.

Western Growers, a 90-year-old fruit and vegetable trade association in California, has launched a global harvest automation initiative through its Center for Innovation and Technology. Imagine lettuce cut with a water jet and transported to a platform of workers who now stand in the shade instead of crouching in the sun to wrap heads of romaine.

Or consider an autonomous robot with artificial intelligence and flexible robotic “hands” that can pick strawberries ready to be marketed. Or even more sci-fi, a self-contained weeding machine using a laser that traverses the field at 5 miles per hour (fast by field standards) removing weeds, not the crop. All of these are used as prototypes or developed products that farmers can purchase.

Europe may be ahead of these trends, struggling with agricultural labor shortages for longer. FIRA Agtech annually hosts the World Ag Robotics Forum and explores field applications as well as market and regulatory barriers to agricultural technology.

The future is here. Colorado farmers need access to labor-efficient farming technology that is both convenient and provides a quick return on investment.

Adrian Card is the Agricultural Extension Officer at Colorado State University Extension in Boulder County in Longmont.

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