Automation is increasingly reducing U.S. workforces

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Reporting from Buttonwillow, Calif. —

The ground trembles on Mike Young’;s almond farm as the forklift-size yellow machine grabs a tree trunk and shakes it hard. Nuts rain like hailstones to the ground, where they’ll lie until another machine comes and sorts them.

Young once grew tomatoes, cucumbers and cotton. But in recent years, he’s shifted almost exclusively to nuts as worldwide demand has made the crop more profitable.

There’s another reason for abandoning row crops: Employees are a headache. Automation means Young no longer needs large crews of farmworkers to plant or harvest — and no more worrying about status, pay or benefits.

“Labor is so expensive,” said Young, whose great-grandfather started farming row crops in Kern County in 1910. “There’s their wages, truck, insurance, workers’ comp and the safety regulations. We went to a high-value crop that needed less labor input.”

Young estimates that at seasonal peaks, he now employs 70% fewer workers.

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