Alex Nowrasteh of the libertarian Cato Institute asked in a recent article “Who Will Pick Our Apples.” The gist of the article was that Americans, according apple producers, won’t pick apples, so therefore we must have a presumably unending flow of foreigners to come here and do the work.
Fact Check: The labor shortages may be real, or they may not be. David North, a former assistant Secretary of Labor, cautions that claims of “labor shortages” resulting in “crops rotting in the fields” can’t always be taken at face value. Usually these are claims of growers unverified by outside sources. Sometimes the reality is much more complex. Source: Caution: Watch for Farmers’ Fibs on “Labor Shortages” www.cis.org 1/12
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that we truly don’t have enough apple pickers. Does this mean that we will never have any alternative to admitting a generally low-paid foreign workforce? Not really. Suppose someone in the 19th century had asked, “Who will pick our cotton, if we don’t have slaves or free workers whose living standards aren’t much better than those of slaves?
The answer is that we developed technology to make masses of field workers unnecessary to bring in cotton crops. The question now to ask is: why can’t we develop technology to harvest all or most of our other crops as well? As we progress into the 21st century, it seems strange to tie ourselves to a pre-technological economy of muscle, toil and sweat.
The fact of the matter is that apple harvesting technology is rapidly developing. In Washington state, where Nowrasteh cited the labor shortage, The Wenatchee Times reported (12/12/09) that “Apple harvest is moving ever closer to looking like corn, wheat and potatoes with machines starting to play bigger roles.”
One problem still to be resolved completely is developing technology that can pick apples, without bruising them, as well as the human hand. But this is now on the horizon. As noted by the Associated Press (9/6/07) “[N]ew 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 of varying qualities.”
Said Derek Morikawa, who has worked with the Washington State Apple Commission to develop a fruit picker, “The technology is maturing just at the right time to allow us to do this kind of work economically.” Another economic gain is eliminating the cost to taxpayers of social services provided to foreign workers and their families.
A key factor holding back the advance of agricultural mechanization, observes Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California (Davis), is “the ready availability of farm workers” at low wages. Source: www.cis.org, Backgrounder, November 2007. Consequently, slowing the flow of legal and illegal farm workers would assist mechanization.
This in the long-run would be in the interest of U.S. farmers who produce apples and other crops. Increasingly, they will have to face competition from foreign producers who have cheap labor at home, or those who are mechanizing themselves.
Technological advance has always been the American way. We lose if we stay dependent on a mode of production more appropriate to the 19th century than the 21st.