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October 2017, Volume 23, Number 4

California: Mechanization

The Los Angeles Times reviewed the status of mechanization in various crops July 21, 2017, emphasizing the large number of prototype machines in development to replace hand workers. From apples to strawberries, tech firms are developing machines to harvest crops.

Asparagus acreage is declining, and many leafy greens are harvested mechanically with knives or water jet cutters. Urban tech firms want radical changes in farming to facilitate mechanization, while firms such as Ramsay Highlander in Salinas stress the productivity gains from incremental changes such as conveyor belts to make hand workers more productive. Machines are being used to plant lettuce so that it does not have to be thinned.

Christopher Ranch, which hires 600 workers to pack and process 90 million pounds of garlic a year at its plant in Gilroy, saw a surge in applications after raising packing shed wages from $11 to $13 an hour in 2017; the firm's minimum wage is scheduled to increase to $15 in 2018. The wages of more skilled packing shed workers rose as well. Christopher uses FLC crews and H-2A workers in the fields, where workers are paid piece rates.

Most wine grapes are picked by machine, a practice that can improve quality because machines can pick at night when temperatures are cooler. By one estimate, about 55 percent of leaf removal to allow the sun to reach grapes is done mechanically, and 20 percent of pruning is mechanized. Picking wine grapes by hand in Napa and Sonoma counties is getting more expensive. Many contractors who charged $150 a ton five years ago wanted $300 a ton in Fall 2017 to hand-harvest grapes.

Guadalupe's Apio Inc. and labor contractor Pacific Harvest in August 2017 agreed to pay $6 million to settle a class-action suit alleging that they had underpaid employees by not paying them for the time required to put on and take off protective gear.

Farmland Partners, the largest US publicly traded farmland real estate investment trust, in September 2017 announced the purchase of 5,100 acres of almonds, pistachios and walnuts in the Central Valley from Olam International, an agribusiness with operations in 70 countries and 70,000 employees. Olam will continue to farm the property for the REIT.