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As Trump targets immigrants, U.S. farm sector looks to automate

From Reuters - November 10, 2017

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Convincing big U.S. dairy owners to buy robots to milk their cows - and reduce the farmhands they employ - used to be a tough sell for Steve Fried. Recently, his job has gotten easier, he says, in part because of President Donald Trump.

I get calls on a daily basis and it typically starts with, I dont want to deal with this labor headache any more, said Fried, sales manager for Lely North America, which makes robotic dairy milking and feeding systems.

Trumps crackdown on illegal immigration through stepped-up arrests and border enforcement has shaken the U.S. agricultural sector, where as many as 7 in 10 farm workers are undocumented, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

In addition, Republican lawmakers in Congress have 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 all but a handful of states.

The get-tough approach has created a great deal of anxiety, said Tom Vilsack, chief executive of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, who was U.S. Agriculture Secretary for eight years under President Barack Obama.

The shift comes as the industry was already struggling to cope with a shrinking, aging workforce. That is ratcheting up pressure on the sector to embrace new technology.

Farmers and food companies increasingly are moving to automate dairy operations, chicken processing, crop production and harvesting. Even delicate crops such as strawberries and peaches are being considered for mechanization.

Youd 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.

Pilgrims Pride Corp, (PPC.O) the second largest U.S. chicken producer, this year cited a tightening migrant labor market as key to its decision to invest in robots and X-ray technology for its slaughterhouses. The goal: to swap human hands for machines that can debone the front half of chickens and perform other chores.

Were investing heavily in automating our processes, taking labor out and making jobs easier, Pilgrims CEO William Lovette said in an earnings call. He said the company also decided to increases wages.

In Gilroy, California, Christopher Ranch is likewise embracing new machinery. The largest North American producer of fresh garlic, Christopher Ranch will spend about $1 million this year for a new Spanish-made robot in its packing plant that inserts garlic heads into sleeves, according to Ken Christopher, vice president of the family-owned business.

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.

Sensing opportunity, investors are stepping up to address agricultures labor squeeze with new automation, helped by falling electronics costs and advancements in software, robotics and artificial intelligence.

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