Limited by High Skilled Labor Shortage
Temporary challenges with filling labor needs are driving permanent increases in wages well above the average rate of increase as major companies like Amazon, JBS, Tyson and others have committed to higher pay for hourly workers. The agricultural industry, which has been experiencing rising labor shortages since 2017, is also seeing exacerbated labor shortages across the industry especially in livestock, produce, and row crop production.
Solving the farm labor problem long-term will be rooted in continued advancement and innovation in new technology, robotics and automation.
Row Crop Autonomous Advancements:
In row crop farming, multiple models are emerging like fully autonomous, small-scale robots, fully autonomous tractors, and retrofitted autonomous tractors. A few examples include:
- Raven Precision commercially launched OMNiDRIVE in 2021. OMNiDrive is an autonomous grain cart solution that can be retrofitted into existing equipment that the farmer controls from the cab of the combine.
- CNH Industrial announced in June 2021 they will acquire Raven Industries with the deal closing by the end of 2021.
- Sabanto, a startup, is also developing a retrofit autonomous product to be used on small-scale tractors.
- John Deere considers autonomy as the most advanced solution they are working towards in their technology stack. They acquired Blue River Technology in 2017 to advance in the space. They have developed concepts for an autonomous tractor, semi-autonomous tractor, autonomous sprayer, and an autonomous drone sprayer.
Autonomy will roll out in phases. Commercialization is already occurring in products that retrofit existing tractors and equipment. The next phase will be fully autonomous, but it is unclear if ‘cab-less’, high horsepower tractors or small autonomous tractor fleets will be the solution to the labor challenge. Technology advancements and lower cost of goods will be critical to get fully autonomous models to commercialization.
Specialty Crops Advancements:
In specialty crops, the labor challenges are more severe since certain production activities, like harvesting, are widely executed by human labor. In addition to challenges caused by inflation and immigration, specialty crop production is also navigating state level policy initiatives, like Colorado’s recent passing of SB21-087. This policy bans the use of hand weeding in conventional production with an exemption for organic farmers.
Due to these excruciating pressures, the movement to bring more automation to the produce industry is a major priority for industry stakeholders. To increase adoption rates and displace large amounts of human labor, the technology will have to advance to being cross-functional, meaning they can be used for a variety of tasks and crops. Cross-functionality enables producers to get more utility from one robot and increase their return on investment.
High Skill Labor Challenges Will Limit Advancements:
High skilled labor is critical to ensure these models continue advancing and reach commercialization, but current labor challenges in the high skilled fields will challenge the advancements in the short term. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics stated, “Employment in computer and information technology occupations is projected to grow 11% from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. These occupations are projected to add about 531,200 new jobs.”
This growth in computer related jobs is stemming from greater emphasis on cloud computing, the collection and storage of big data, and information security. According to Market and Markets, the agricultural robots market is projected to grow from $4.6 billion in 2020 to $20.3 billion by 2025. The trending shortage of high skilled labor is a growing threat to future farm productivity and the overall advancement and growth of the U.S. economy.
Why it Matters:
A new wave of advancements in agriculture is aiming to overcome the worsening labor challenges. However, the technology advancements may be hindered in the short term by the high demand for computer and information technology jobs, and the transportation and manufacturing disruptions caused by COVID-19. Over the course of the next decade, adoption on farm could also be challenged if the high skilled labor needed to operate and service these robots are not inclined to live in rural America.
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