Impatient With Congress, Blueberry Producers Are Replacing Migrant Workers With Machines

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jaime Henry-White


CREDIT: AP Photo/Jaime Henry-White

Maine’s agricultural growers are not waiting around for an immigration bill to find workers to harvest the 91 million pound blueberry harvest, the Bangor Daily News reported on Saturday. Instead, farm owners are turning to tractors to replace seasonal farm workers as a way to bypass the difficulty of finding future documented seasonal farm laborers and American workers.

Throughout Maine, blueberry farms are asking themselves whether it would make sense to let the harvest rot while they wait for an immigration reform overhaul that would make it easier to hire migrant workers. Even with pay at $20 an hour, which is almost triple Maine’s $7.50 minimum wage, many blueberry farmers are finding that few Americans were willing to work the fields. That’s despite an unemployment rate in Washington County, Maine — home to many of the blueberry farms — of ten percent for Americans.

Ed Flanagan, president of the second largest blueberry grower, Jasper Wyman & Son Inc., had hoped that running employers through the E-Verify system, which verifies a worker’s employment authorization documents, would help sort out fraudulent applicants. But after E-Verify worked to its intended effect in the state, there was a paucity of American workers at his farm. Cherryfield Foods Inc., Maine’s largest blueberry grower, has turned to relying on machines to harvest blueberries. Smaller farms like Whitney Blueberries has also turned to mechanizing its harvest.

The movement toward mechanizing harvests has led to a sharp 80 percent decrease of seasonal workers in the past 15 years, according to the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission. There were only about 1,000 seasonal workers working in Maine last year.

But because robot technology, while efficient, is untrained to pick up on subtle nuisances like rotting or unripe fruits and vegetables, advocates believe growers will have to use more pesticides and that the food supply would become less safe.

Ultimately, an immigration reform overhaul would aid the American economy in a way that robot technology cannot. Immigrant farm laborers have skills sets that are complementary to American workers, so replacing any part of that equation would equally impact the other half. An overhaul would also raise the wages for both kinds of workers, while robot technology would lower wages.

Meanwhile, agricultural industries are already in trouble without immigration reform. Farms in North Carolina are hard-pressed to find permanent American workers to replace migrant workers. Of the 245 unemployed North Carolinians hired at farms, only 163 people showed up on the first day of work. Worse still, only seven people stuck to the job through the end of the growing season.