Aging agricultural workforce replaced by machines

YUMA, Ariz. – Field workers are aging, and there is less interest from the youth to join the agricultural workforce. Now the industry is turning to mechanization to fill the shortage.

Stephen Alameda, Owner and Operator of Top Flavors Farms said, “It’s a constant challenge to get people to do this work. So these machines are becoming more and more necessary. And that’s kind of what American Ag is all about is keeping up and keeping abreast and using things to benefit us.”

A shift the multi-billion dollar industry will have to make. As less people are opting for a job in the fields, leaving behind an aging workforce. Kurt Nolte with the University of Arizona College Agriculture and Life Science said, “Some work that we did several years ago suggests that the average age of a field worker is roughly 50 to 55 years of age so the dynamic is real for local area growers it’s an aging workforce and fewer people are getting involved with field work.”

Forcing growers in Yuma County and across the nation to face the harsh reality – a retiring population of field workers leaving vacant jobs. To fill the void, the industry is turning to machines. Combining technology with nature.”I think as the labor force gets older and we have less people we’re going to be forced to mechanize there’s just no other way around it,” said Tony Tew, General Manager of Foothills Packing who contracts laborers.

But with advancing technology comes an even stronger need for younger more tech-saavy field workers.
“Because of the mechanization and what’s coming forward we’ve tried to get the interest of younger kids coming this way,” said Tew. Except industry experts say there is little interest from the youth, as field work is typically pictures to by fully manual and back-breaking.
“We don’t see as many young people going back into the field. I believe their parents did it as a career because they didn’t have any other opportunities,” said Tew. Field worker Lorena Morales said, “The youth isn’t like us they are very lazy, they like what is easy. If they come one day, they don’t show up the next.”
Younger applicants that do give field work a chance aren’t in it for the long haul like those that came before them. Instead there is a trend to take on the job as a temporary way to make money that could help field workers get closer to a greater dream. “And those are moving onto other jobs that are higher paying jobs and higher level of education,” said Tew.
Like Karen Gonzalez, who is learning Social Work at Arizona Western College and new to field work. “I don’t want to stay here forever I just come to the days because I am studying. It’s easy money so I can buy books for college,” said Gonzalez.
This limited time dedicated to the work by younger employees strains growers who face a high turnover. But those that stuck with it and adapted to new technological advances say the payoff is worth it. Jose Gasca operates a thinner. This computerized machine targets plants, sprays a chemical, and creates desired space between crops, replacing manual labor.
Gasca said, “It’s better now, we don’t have to be out in the sun as long as you know a little bit about computers how to handle machinery how to operate anybody could do it.” The thinner is just one example of a piece of technology replacing crews of up to 40 laborers and saving time.
When using traditional hand labor covering the span of the average field could take up to an hour. But with the thinner that work is cut down to a matter of minutes. This investment does save time, but industry leaders say it isn’t ideal. “Obviously cutting hand labor you save cost but I personally believe by saving cost you’re going to get less of quality,” said Tew.
Nonetheless experts are confident new technology will drive new interest to a career in agriculture. “When people look at harvest and labor work they look at the Hispanic side of it which is the culture that took upon the hand labor but I do feel that with the new mechanization we’re going to see a change the labor force for sure,” said Tew.

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