Every once in a while, I’ll see a grower post a video on social media, showing off some new transplanter, harvesting robot, or another kind of automation equipment and explaining what it is and how it’s making a difference in the growing operation. Inevitably, these videos get tons of clicks, likes, and comments. Most are from people outside the industry who say something like, “Wow, that’s really cool!” or “I had no idea greenhouses were so high-tech!”
But then there are the folks who make comments about the automation taking away greenhouse jobs. The grower who posted the video typically responds, explaining that the automation actually doesn’t displace any workers — they’re just reassigned to higher value functions — and that reliable employees are extremely difficult to find in our industry, thus the need for automation.
The reality is, due to our current labor struggles, it’s likely our industry will look a whole lot different in the next 20 years as growers invest in technology to offset shortages and increasing costs. According to Greenhouse Grower’s 2018 State of the Industry Survey, 48% of growers are investing in new equipment in 2018, and 70% of growers said increased efficiency is a top operational goal over the next three years. Among the largest growers, 78% said they planned to invest in automation in the coming year, per Greenhouse Grower’s 2017 Top 100 Growers Survey.
But horticulture isn’t the only industry that’s getting a technology facelift. In the first half of 2017, novel farming systems raised $198 million across 21 deals, a 560% increase year over year, according to AgFunder. Mainstream tech executives are predicting that robots will dominate industrialized economies over the next several decades, and some are already working on policy for when that happens.
For instance, Microsoft Founder Bill Gates believes so strongly that robots will replace jobs that he’s started thinking about how companies should pay tax on robots to make up for lost income tax, according to a 2017 article in Quartz.
And Jeff Bezos, who plans to create tens of thousands of jobs with the building of Amazon’s second headquarters, has more than 45,000 robots working in distribution centers, according to a Business Insider article. And he may displace even more workers with employee-free grocery stores, the first of which opened in late January.
“It’s probably hard to overstate how big of an impact it’s going to have on society over the next 20 years,” Bezos said at a 2017 Code Conference.
So with all of this turnover in other markets, is it likely the rapid adoption of artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation in all industries will release thousands — maybe even millions — of workers who could look to more traditional industries like agriculture and horticulture for work?
Even if that were true, we can’t afford to wait around to find out. We’re facing a critical labor shortage right now, and at the rate our industry is automating and with more technologies being developed for growers, we may be among the “industrialized economies” with fewer jobs available.
I will let Metrolina Greenhouses’ Abe VanWingerden have the last word on the subject this month. When Lloyd Traven of Peace Tree Farms’ commented on an article, about how he wished he could afford to buy the new combination ISO cutting sticker and transplanter, Abe said it all pretty succinctly: “You can’t afford not to buy it!”