The Age of Robot Farmers

John Seabrook

It’s strawberry season, the time of year when your local berry farm opens its fields for leisurely family picking. It’s a warm childhood memory, but also heavy with irony. Within the agricultural industry, strawberry harvesting has been labeled one of the most abusive and exploitive spaces. Native-born Americans won’t work in it and migrant strawberry pickers never want their families to do it either.

Enter Berry 5.1, a strawberry-picking robot with multiple claw-like appendages, “able to cup the berries and pivot, imitating the popping action that human pickers make with their wrists” — and within a fraction of a second. Should this be the future of the berry industry? Conversations about the future of human work are ramping up, and this article investigates how the discussion is taking place in a dark corner of the agricultural industry. As one interviewee puts it, “Mental mechanization of labor has been going on for decades—essentially seeing workers as robots and demanding higher and higher productivity with less and less regard to their human condition. So for them to flip the switch into actual robots is hardly a groundbreaking decision. It’s just the next phase in the process.”

Robots are one solution, of course. But we should also recognize how our consumer habits affect the “human condition” of laborers, outmoding the flesh and blood vocations for which we were made. Read or listen to "The Age of Robot Farmers" at The New Yorker. For an illuminating treatment of the moral questions at the heart of industrial agriculture, pick up Wendell Berry’s classic The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.

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