Trump’s immigration crackdown prompts farm sector to consider automation

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Thanks to President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration, companies that sell automated farm equipment are booming.

“I get calls on a daily basis and it typically starts with, ‘I don’t want to deal with this labor headache anymore,’” said Steve Fried, sales manager for Lely North America, which makes robotic dairy milking and feeding systems.

More arrests of illegals and increased border enforcement have greatly affected the U.S. agricultural sector. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, as many as 7 in 10 farm workers are typically illegal aliens.

Republican lawmakers in Congress have also introduced legislation that would require all employers to check social security numbers against federal databases to ensure their workers are in the country legally, something that is now voluntary in most states.

The government’s crackdown “has created a great deal of anxiety,” said Tom Vilsack, chief executive of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. He served under President Barack Obama as U.S. Agriculture secretary for eight years.

Already struggling to cope with a shrinking, aging workforce, farms are now considering the new technology in light of the legal landscape regarding migrant workers.

Every type of farm task, from chicken processing and cow-milking, to crop production and harvesting can be done by robots.

“You’d be a fool to not have a plan that moves you that way,” said Duff Bevill, who owns a vineyard management company in Sonoma County, California.

When the second-largest chicken producer in the United States announced its decision to invest in robots and X-ray technology for its slaughterhouses, officials of Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. pointed to the tightening migrant labor market as the reason.

“We’re investing heavily in automating our processes, taking labor out and making jobs easier,” company CEO William Lovette said in an earnings call. He said the company also decided to increase its workers’ wages.

A 2014 report by WinterGreen Research forecast significant growth in the use of robotics in “every aspect of farming, milking, food production” and other agricultural enterprises. The report put the market for agricultural robots at $817 million in 2013 and projected that it would reach $16.3 billion by 2020.

There’s not much official data around that illustrates the impact of Trump’s immigration policies on farm laborers, but farmers have been raising wages in the wake of lower illegal migration since he took office in January.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent farm labor report shows average wages during the week of April 9 to 15 were $13.23 per hour, up 4 percent from the same week a year ago.

“The mantra in agriculture right now is, automate what you can and pay well for the labor you absolutely have to have,” said Paul Pittman, CEO of Farmland Partners Inc., a real estate investment trust that invests in North American farmland.

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