Cotton Harvesting Technology Cuts Labor Costs
A century ago, one of the most miserable jobs was picking cotton in the hot sun. Now cotton farming has become highly automated like much of present-day agriculture. One cutting-edge machine is a John Deere cotton stripper which moves through the fields, picking and processing eight rows of cotton at a time and finally plopping out a 5000-pound packaged tube of the fiber ready to be sent to a modern cotton gin where cleaning and baling is completed.
The importance of the machine’s efficiency, particularly cutting the expense of workers, stands out in the company video below. The voice-over says, “Perhaps best of all is the decrease in your labor costs.” Cotton farmer Mike Henson of Ropesville, Texas, remarked positively, “The biggest thing about it was a one-man operation doing what nine or ten other people usually do.”
So why does Washington continue importing immigrant workers like it’s 1910?
Adding millions of low-skilled foreigners to America will look like a really bad idea when automation becomes obvious as a disruptive social force. From farm to factory, the workplace is changing fundamentally because of smart machines, and the revolution only getting started: in fact tech experts predict the next five years will see a growing threat to jobs and a need for workers to have technical skills to stay employed.
The move to automation will speed up as the machines get cheaper. Oxford researchers forecast in 2013 that nearly half of American jobs were vulnerable to machine or software replacement within 20 years. Rice University computer scientist Moshe Vardi believes that in 30 years humans will become largely obsolete, and world joblessness will reach 50 percent. The Gartner tech advising company believes that one-third of jobs will be done by machines by 2025. The consultancy firm PwC published a report last year that forecast robots could take 38 percent of US jobs by 2030.
Right now, things are changing down on the farm.
Lessons From a Slow-Motion Robot Takeover, By Virginia Postrel, Bloomberg.com, February 9, 2018
Cotton harvesting is now dominated by machines. But it took decades to happen.
From the cab of Rodney Terry’s state-of-the-art John Deere cotton stripper, harvesting cotton seems like the easiest job in the world. We chug along at four or five miles an hour, watching the giant machine’s bright yellow fingers gobble up eight rows of bolls at a time. White rows magically turn brown as we pass over them. Then comes the reveal, as every few minutes a plastic-wrapped cylinder eight feet across plops out the back, holding as much as 5,000 pounds of cotton ready for the gin.
“This thing is just constantly moving,” says Terry, who farms 6,000 acres in Ropesville, Texas, a half hour’s drive southwest of Lubbock. The stripper cost a whopping $700,000, but it’s amazingly efficient. Terry can harvest 100 to 120 acres a day, compared to 80 with the previous generation of equipment, which had to stop periodically to empty its basket of harvested cotton into a trailer. He can also keep working in windy weather that would blow away loose bolls waiting to be wrapped in the field.
Most important, he no longer needs to hire a half dozen harvest workers to supplement his three full-time employees. Finding reliable seasonal laborers for farms and gins is increasingly difficult in West Texas. Locals blame government benefits that offer a better deal than temporary work. (“Don’t get me started,” says Terry.) Bringing in the harvest with his new setup takes only two people at a time: one to steer the stripper and one to drive a tractor that lines up the modules for the gin to pick up. Full-timers handle everything, and the machine can run all night if needed.
“I figured out this new machine, it’s displacing at least 1,000 people,” says Dan Taylor, a retired cotton farmer and gin owner in Ropesville. “It can harvest on a good day as much as a thousand people would harvest” in the days of hand-pulling cotton. Of course, most of those people left the cotton fields decades ago. The robots are taking the jobs — and they’ve been doing it for at least 60 years. The story of how cotton harvesting has changed over the decades doubles as a reminder that even robots take their time. At least until a certain point.
1) Full automation was impossible without years of tinkering. Although mechanized cotton harvesters were available in the 1920s, they didn’t catch on until after World War II. As long as farms needed workers to hoe weeds and thin cotton plants, replacing them at harvest time made little economic sense. Chemicals, not machines, solved that part of the problem; the ground between rows in Terry’s field is perfectly bare.
Even that wasn’t the end of it. “The ancillary requirements seemed to go on and on,” wrote the late historian Donald Holley in The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the South. Gins had to install dryers, for instance, because machine-harvested cotton retained more moisture. Farmers needed chemical defoliants to apply before harvesting so that their bales wouldn’t be contaminated with leaf trash. Breeders had to develop shorter plants with bolls that emerged at the same time, allowing a single pass through the fields. Until all these things had happened, harvesters had limited appeal.