Why Farmworkers Will Regret Earning More Overtime

Farm workers farmingWe can’t predict whether Gov. Jerry Brown will sign Assembly Bill 1066, which the Legislature just passed and which imposes stricter overtime rules on farm labor. But even if he vetoes it, a similar bill will be passed in 2019 and signed by the next governor.

That’s all the incentive farm owners need to keep advancing automation. Another incentive is that California farmers, as the Sacramento Bee just reported, lost $9 billion in revenues in 2015 from the drought.

You’d think that a state whose penultimate governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, became famous playing a cyborg would understand that machines gradually are terminating most human jobs, and that more restrictions on human labor only will hasten that day.

The AP story waxed nostalgic how, if Brown signs the bill, it would “mark a victory in the fight to improve farmworkers rights in the decades old movement launched by Cesar Chavez, the legendary co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association who fought for higher farm worker pay.” But when Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (later called the United Farm Workers) in 1962, a computer was a gigantic machine that ate Hollerith cards in an air-controlled room.

Now it’s your iPhone.

The AP story added, “Gonzalo Najera, who drives a tractor on Salinas Valley’s lettuce, carrots and broccoli fields, said some farmers are saying the extra overtime payments could drive them out of the state, but he doesn’t buy the argument.

“‘The growers can’t leave,’ Najera said. ‘They can’t take their dirt with them.’”

Najera, meet the Lettuce Bot: “SALINAS (CBS/AP) – On a windy morning in California’s Salinas Valley, a tractor pulled a wheeled, refrigerator-sized contraption over rows of budding iceberg lettuce plants. Engineers from Silicon Valley tinkered with the software on a laptop to ensure the machine was eliminating the right leafy buds.

“Hired by a Salinas-based agricultural produce company, the engineers were testing the Lettuce Bot, a machine that can “thin” a field of lettuce in the time it takes about 20 workers to do the job by hand.”

The Economist provided a picture and explained how it operates: “Enter Lettuce Bot, the brainchild of two Stanford-trained engineers, Jorge Heraud and Lee Redden. Their diligent robotic labourer, pulled behind a tractor, starts by taking pictures of passing plants. Computer-vision algorithms devised by Mr. Redden compare these to a database of more than a million images, taken from different angles against different backdrops of soil and other plants, that he and Mr. Heraud have amassed from their visits to lettuce farms. A simple shield blocks out the Californian sun to prevent odd shading from confounding the software.”

Will the farm-worker lobby be able to impose Luddite-style restrictions on the new technology? Not when their statewide clout is a fraction that of Silicon Valley, which now basically runs the state government.

A January 2016 study by Oxford Martin for Citi predicted 57 percent of global workers could be replaced by cyborgs. Specifically, it found, “As shown by a number of studies, labour-saving inventions may only be adopted if the access to cheap labour is scarce or prices of capital are relatively high…. In addition, recent empirical research reveals a causal relationship between the access to cheap labour and mechanisation in agricultural production, in terms of sustained economic transition towards increased mechanisation in areas characterised by low-wage worker out-migration.”

Translation from econo-speak: When labor prices rise and the cost of technology drops, cyborgs enter with the relentlessness of Arnold in the original, 1984 “Terminator.”

Regardless of what the California Legislature and governor do, they’ll be back.

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Steeper Fines Proposed to Punish Water-Wasters

SprinklerCalifornia’s ongoing water crisis promised to extend the controversy over fines and regulations well into the next year — if not beyond. While some areas suffer, others flourish, and fines — in some instances aggressively applied — have been meted out unevenly.

Despite limiting water use, residents in lower-income areas have complained that they have faced substantial fines, while some of the Golden State’s most conspicuous consumers have escaped penalty. In Apple Valley, “where the median household income is below $50,000 a year,” some have struggled to keep their consumption below the limit, while one “home under construction in Bel Air has been issued permits for five pools,” the New York Times reported:

“Los Angeles officials hope to start imposing fines so steep that even the wealthy who populate Bel Air will notice. Elsewhere, though, fines have already piled up on middle-class Californians. The Central Valley city of Clovis, faced with an order to cut back 36 percent, has meted out more than 23,000 fines since the mandatory water reductions began in June. In Santa Cruz, where water supplies have run dangerously low, the city has assessed more than $1.6 million in penalties for using too much water.”

Mid-month, Gov. Jerry Brown issued a fresh order expanding and strengthening his strict water policies. “The order gives state water officials greater authority to deal with drought conditions and to cope with potential winter storms from El Nino, a periodic warming of ocean surface temperatures,” as Reuters reported, extending emergency conservation “through October if California still faces a drought in January. The order also extends the suspension of some environmental rules, lets some state residents capture more water and expedites rebuilding permits for power plants damaged by wildfires.”

Localities have braced for the new, unprecedented groundwater regulations as officials have been dispatched to implement and enforce them. “They are under orders to begin actively managing underground aquifers that for generations have been treated as a private resource, with property owners empowered to dig wells and extract as much water as they wanted without particular regard for their neighbors or government agencies,” the Sacramento Bee noted.

“But even amid the sobering accounts of dried-up wells, salt-tainted groundwater and collapsing aquifers in California farm country, no one expects regulation will be easy to set up or sell. Instead, the entire process — starting with just who gets to decide how much water can be ‘sustainably’ pumped in a region — is expected to spark lengthy debate and complicated lawsuits. This is particularly true in farm-rich regions such as Kings County, where the groundwater basins are critically overdrawn.”

Some farmers face the prospect of having to simply cease operations after a relatively brief period of time. “Land retirement is coming to California agriculture. The drought will end someday, maybe even this winter, but farmers will still face long-term shortages of water,” the Bee observed separately. “The relentless groundwater pumping that has kept hundreds of farms going the past four years is coming to an end.”

Meanwhile, other parts of the state have wound up with a large surplus of water, thanks to the uniformity of conservation regulations. “Unlike other parts of California, San Diego has 99 percent of the water needed for normal usage. But statewide conservation mandates have applied equally to areas that have plenty of water and those that don’t, so the result here has been water piling up unused while local water agencies raise rates to make up for lost sales,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “The new supply is just one more reason local water officials are advocating for the state to ease conservation mandates for areas where supplies are ample, which would lessen the oversupply.”

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

CARTOON: Brown Tractor Pull

Brown tractor pull cartoon