Machines could cut worker shortage
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 21, 2006
Expert: Farmers too reliant on cheap labor
When the federal government ended the Bracero program in 1964, U.S. tomato
farmers were in an uproar.
Without Mexican workers, there would be no one left to pick tomatoes, they
Until then, almost all of California's 45,000 tomato pickers were Mexicans,
employed under the temporary-worker program that was created in the 1940s to
offset labor shortages by men going off to fight in World War II. Farmers
predicted the tomato industry wouldn't survive without them. Instead, the
Within six years, machines replaced the workers. By being forced to modernize,
farmers improved productivity.
"Necessity is the mother of invention," said Phillip Martin, an agriculture
professor at the University of California-Davis.
Today, farmers are again clamoring for an expanded guest-worker program they say
is needed to offset worsening labor shortages.
But Martin believes farmers have become too dependent on immigrant labor.
Instead, they should be investing more in machinery to harvest crops.
But that won't happen as long as farmers have access to a bottomless pool of
"It's kind of illogical to keep importing workers," he said.
Doug Mellon, who grows 10,000 acres of vegetables a year in Yuma, said Martin
may have a point.
He remembers when the Bracero program ended.
"We didn't know how we were going to pick the cotton, but then machines came
along," he said.
Some farmers insist lettuce, Yuma's main crop, is too fragile to be picked by
In 1964, farmers said the same about tomatoes.
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