Imagine a lofty mountain bordered with pear trees whose branches are coated with freezing rain. Imagine an orchard with rotten pears weighing down the branches in a natural decaying process. Imagine a valley of pear trees with ripe fruit in the sweltering summer sun and hundreds of five-foot human-like robots ready to run their algorithms for a selection process via camera sensors.
Every winter gives us a vivid image of the first scenario. The second scenario is likely to happen when undocumented immigrants are raided up and the President shuts down the U.S.–Mexico border, the main goal of the current administration in terms of immigration policy. And robots are an alternative solution to the second scenario, but we must first exhaust every possibility to give jobs to those who need them in a fair trade deal.
Although we live in the era of technology — from legged locomotion to self-driving cars and self-landing rockets — no technology whatsoever is used in pear picking in the Hood River Valley. Pear picking is very hard work. Pickers use 14-foot ladders and carry a sack that weighs 50 pounds when full of fruit. When the sack is full, the pears are carefully emptied into plastic bins weighing about 1,100 pounds when full of fruit. Depending on the type of pear, a picker (male or female) can harvest up to 10 bins (totaling 5.5 tons) in an eight-hour work day. By the end of an eight-hour shift, the picker is exhausted and dehydrated due to the unbearable heat of August. This type of job seems ripe for a robotic takeover, and the current convulsed immigration policies are fizzling such takeover: it’s just a matter of time.
Robotic farming may be perceived as a technological apocalypse, but it is not — even scientists are struck by the sudden breathtaking advances in technology such as deep learning. For example, locomotion was a big challenge for scientists, but MIT recently released a video (Backflipping MIT mini Cheetah) in which they exhibit a four-legged robot which can quickly regain its balance and scramble with uncanny naturalness when the designer kicks it over. In fact, technology is already implemented in pear sorting in the Hood River Valley. In 2018, for instance, Diamond Fruit Growers Inc. reported in the Hood River News that they are using pear sorting machines made in Italy. These machines use camera sensors to screen a pear’s size, shape, and color. This sort of technology is widely used in farming, but it’s not at the level of the kind of technology envisioned in the third scenario above.
A concrete example of robotic farming is in Japan, the world’s third largest economy. To avoid dealing with immigration, Japan automatized most of its farming industry due to declining population. Following Japan’s lead in robotic farming, other countries such as Germany and Singapore have also adopted automation for much of their farming. You may have also heard of the billionaire Elon Musk whose SpaceX company safely landed two self-driving rockets in 2019. Elon’s brother, Kimbal Musk, is also an entrepreneur in the food industry who aspires to “empower the next generation of farmers.” The Musk brothers really like self-driving stuff, and they have a lot of money.
Although we live in the era of technology — from legged locomotion to self-driving cars and self-landing rockets — no technology whatsoever is used in pear picking in the Hood River Valley.
It is a well-known fact that most workers (if not all) who deliver the labor management in orchards in the valley are Hispanic, many of whom undocumented. If undocumented workers are raided up and the border is shut down, there are only few possibilities that one can pursue in order to address the second scenario, none of them feasible in a short period of time. Back in the days, farm workers would come to the valley for seasonal labor and go back to their home countries during winter. This type of migration has gone extinct, and farm workers who benefited from Ronald Reagan’s 1986 immigration reform are probably retired by now. And college graduates are not applying for these jobs; in fact, there is no professional training in pear or apple picking whatsoever.
Technology is flourishing like never before, and I believe our best shot is to embrace it and succumb to the fear of it—of course, we must also regulate it by ensuring that its use is beneficial and not self-destructive for humanity. But before exploring the possibility of robotic farming, farmers can impel new avenues in farming that would make the job easier for humans. A short-term solution would be to make trees smaller and change planation geometry. A robust immigration system in which people from all over the world can apply for these kind of jobs must be in place, and professional training in all the jobs required for carrying out a successful harvest must be provided. The biggest challenge yet is adopting to climate change; this may require exploring genetic engineering technology. The best solution is one in which consumers, farmers, pickers, and the environment are treated fairly.
Think about the three scenarios above again. The creation of robots and understanding the decaying process require creativity and knowledge — two traits that humans are very good at. When confronted with the scenarios above, farmers, pickers, engineers, biologists, teachers, artists, and layers must collaborate in addressing these issues for the good of humanity. For now, these ideas ought to be looming in the classroom so that kids can understand the challenges and possibilities that they have for future careers if they open their eyes to the richness of nature that surrounds them in this unique valley that they call home.
Abel Cruz Flores is a PhD student at Georgetown University. He graduated from Columbia Gorge Community College Hood River Campus in 2010. He is an advocate for immigration reform.