Op-ed: Want an Agtech Revolution? Center Farmworkers’ Expertise
Robots, drones, sensors, autonomous tractors, and other digital technology are appearing like never before in the fruit and vegetable fields of the U.S. Tech startups are quick to make marketing claims about the technology’s ability to do everything from reducing the quantity of pesticides used to addressing global warming.
Take, for example, Mineral, the effort from Google’s parent company Alphabet, which has been in the works at its X “moonshot” lab for the last half decade. Mineral hopes to cover U.S. farmland with solar-powered rovers that use advanced perceptual learning to document and gather data about an unimaginable number of plants.
“With the necessary support and tools, farmworkers can think creatively, find ways to improve the quality of today’s farm work, and redesign farms as better, safer, and more dignified workplaces.”
Mineral is just the latest in a series of companies making big promises about the benefits to farmers and the environment. But they also fail to acknowledge how automation could impact growers, farmworkers, and rural communities.
An alarming number of these innovations are openly targeting farmworkers for replacement. If left to their own devices, these startups would eliminate tens of thousands of jobs across rural America. The wages these workers earn are used to reinvest in the local economy—buying groceries, renting homes, buying clothes, and going out at night—would disappear. Thousands of mom-and-pop stores would lose their customer bases and go out of business.
Today’s agriculture, especially on farms where farmworkers are employed, is in desperate need of innovation to create safer, more dignified work, and technology can certainly play an important role in making this happen. But imagine what would happen if, rather than passively depending on Silicon Valley startups funded by venture capital and private equity firms, we instead put farmworkers themselves at center of this urgently needed change?
The investment sector is clear that their overarching interest in funding ag startups is to have a stake in the next unicorn. Much like Facebook isn’t so much about connecting friends and family but collecting and monetizing large amounts of free data from its users, the current direction in ag tech is about generating a return for investors and harvesting growers’ data.
Instead, why not instead invest in farmworkers, their families, and communities? With the necessary support and tools, farmworkers can think creatively, find ways to improve the quality of today’s farm work, and redesign farms as better, safer, and more dignified workplaces. This approach would increase the integrity of the food supply chain. And finally, such an investment will build the economic resilience of rural communities.
This vision isn’t a pipe dream. It’s one grounded in reality and knowledge that farmworkers know more about what happens in the fields than anyone else in agriculture.
The Deep Roots of Farmworkers’ Knowledge and Expertise
Several years back, Alexia spent the summer working in the apple orchards in Wallula, Washington. She arrived at 4 a.m., spoke to a crew boss, and was sent to thin the fruit on the trees. The farm management gave her no instructions, but she was paired up with another worker, Doña Tere. Tere was in her 50s, had been working in the fields for decades, and taught Alexia everything she needed to know about thinning apples.
The amount of skill and knowledge that Tere bestowed upon Alexia only confirmed the expertise and talent in their wider community. When Alexia returned to university that fall, she felt transformed. And she has used that experience in her current role working to create makerspaces for farmworkers at a nascent organization called Semillero de Ideas.
Farmworkers see the technology being built around them and many are eager to have a role in shaping it. Take Josefina Luciano, who, like Tere, has spent much of her adult life working in the fields in eastern Washington. She points out agricultural workers are experts in their work and have broad knowledge and understanding to recognize what can improve and function better. She sees a path forward that involves using machines to help make the job less grueling and physically demanding—such as the existing harvesting platforms and conveyor belts seen throughout today’s orchards and strawberry fields—especially in extreme temperatures.
“There have been people who are engineers in robotic mechanics, and they know how to make machines, but they do not have the connection with nature that we do,” Luciano told us. “We’re the people they should be taking into consideration to ensure technology is properly deployed while avoiding replacing farmworkers. These large corporations may be able to replace us where we work, but they’ll never replace our human touch, sacrifice, and essence.”