Mechanised agriculture is the process of using agricultural machinery to mechanise the work of agriculture, greatly increasing farm worker productivity. In modern times, powered machinery has replaced many jobs formerly carried out by manual labour or by working animals such as oxen, horses and mules.
The history of agriculture contains many examples of tool use, such as the plough. Mechanization involves the use of an intermediate device between the power source and the work. This intermediate device usually transforms motion, such as rotary to linear, or provides some sort of mechanical advantage, such as speed increase or decrease or leverage.
Current mechanised agriculture includes the use of tractors, trucks, combine harvesters, airplanes (crop dusters), helicopters, and other vehicles. Modern farms even sometimes use computers in conjunction with satellite imagery and GPS guidance to increase yields.
Mechanisation was one of the factors responsible for urbanization and industrial economies. Besides improving production efficiency, mechanisation encourages large scale production and improves the quality of farm produce. On the other hand, it displaces unskilled farm labor, causes environmental pollution, deforestation and erosion.
Jethro Tull's seed drill (ca. 1701) was a mechanical seed spacing and depth placing device that increased crop yields and saved seed. It was an important factor in the British Agricultural Revolution.
Since the beginning of agriculture threshing was done by hand with a flail, requiring a great deal of labor. The threshing machine, which was invented in 1794 but not widely used for several more decades, simplified the operation and allowed the use of animal power. Before the invention of the grain cradle (ca. 1790) an able bodied laborer could reap about one quarter acre of wheat in a day using a sickle. It was estimated that for each of Cyrus McCormick's horse pulled reapers (ca. 1830s) freed up five men for military service in the U.S. Civil War. Later innovations included raking and binding machines. By 1890 two men and two horses could cut, rake and bind 20 acres of wheat per day.
In the 1880s the reaper and threshing machine were combined into the combine harvester. These machines required large teams of horses or mules to pull. Steam power was applied to threshing machines in the late 19th century. There were steam engines that moved around on wheels under their own power for supplying temporary power to stationary threshing machines. These were called road engines, and Henry Ford seeing one as a boy was inspired to build an automobile.
With internal combustion came the first modern tractors in the early 1900s, becoming more popular after the Fordson tractor (ca. 1917). At first reapers and combine harvesters were pulled by tractors, but in the 1930s self powered combines were developed. (Link to a chapter on agricultural mechanisation in the 20th Century at reference)
Advertising for motorized equipment in farm journals during this era did its best to compete against horse-drawn methods with economic arguments, extolling common themes such as that a tractor "eats only when it works", that one tractor could replace many horses, and that mechanisation could allow one man to get more work done per day than he ever had before. The horse population in the U.S. began to decline in the 1920s after the conversion of agriculture and transportation to internal combustion. Peak tractor sales in the U.S. were around 1950. In addition to saving labor, this freed up much land previously used for supporting draft animals. The greatest period of growth in agricultural productivity in the U.S. was from the 1940s to the 1970s, during which time agriculture was benefiting from internal combustion powered tractors and combine harvesters, chemical fertilizers and the green revolution.
Although farmers of corn, wheat, soy, and other commodity crops had replaced most of their workers with harvesting machines and combines enabling them to efficiently cut and gather grains, growers of produce continued to rely on human pickers to avoid the bruising of the product in order to maintain the blemish-free appearance demanded of consumers. The continuous supply of illegal workers from Latin America that were willing to harvest the crops for low wages further suppressed the need for mechanization. As the number of illegal workers has continued to decline since reaching its peak in 2007 due to increased border patrols and an improving Mexican economy, the industry is increasing the use of mechanization. Proponents argue that mechanization will boost productivity and help to maintain low food prices while farm worker advocates assert that it will eliminate jobs and will give an advantage to large growers who are able to afford the required equipment.
Current status of future applications
Asparagus are presently harvested by hand with labor costs at 71% of production costs and 44% of selling costs. Asparagus is a difficult crop to harvest since each spear matures at a different speed making it difficult to achieve a uniform harvest. A prototype asparagus harvesting machine - using a light-beam sensor to identify the taller spears - is expected to be available for commercial use.
Chile pepper harvesting
As of 2014, prototype chili pepper harvesters are being tested by New Mexico State University. The New Mexico green chile crop is currently hand-picked entirely by field workers as chili pods tend to bruise easily. The first commercial application commenced in 2015. The equipment is expected to increase yield per acre and help to offset a sharp decline in acreage planted due to the lack of available labor and drought conditions.
As of 2010, approximately 10% of the processing orange acreage in Florida is harvested mechanically. Mechanisation has progressed slowly due to the uncertainty of future economic benefits due to competition from Brazil and the transitory damage to orange trees when they are harvested.
Strawberries are a high cost-high value crop with the economics supporting mechanisation. In 2005, picking and hauling costs were estimated at $594 per ton or 51% of the total grower cost. However, the delicate nature of fruit make it an unlikely candidate for mechanisation in the near future. A strawberry harvester developed by Shibuya Seiki and unveiled in Japan in 2013 is able to pick a strawberry every eight seconds. The robot identifies which strawberries are ready to pick by using three separate cameras and then once identified as ready, a mechanized arm snips the fruit free and gently places it in a basket. The robot moves on rails between the rows of strawberries which are generally contained within elevated greenhouses. The machine costs 5 million yen. A new strawberry harvester made by Agrobot that will harvest strawberries on raised, hydroponic beds using 60 robotic arms is expected to be released in 2016.
Mechanical harvesting of tomatoes started in 1965 and as of 2010, nearly all processing tomatoes are mechanically harvested. As of 2010, 95% of the U.S. processed tomato crop is produced in California. Although fresh market tomatoes have substantial hand harvesting costs (in 2007, the costs of hand picking and hauling were $86 per ton which is 19% of total grower cost), packing and selling costs were more of a concern (at 44% of total grower cost) making it likely that cost saving efforts would be applied there.
According to a 1977 report by the California Agrarian Action Project, during the summer of 1976 in California, many harvest machines had been equipped with a photo-electric scanner that sorted out green tomatoes among the ripe red ones using infrared lights and color sensors. It worked in lieu of 5,000 hand harvesters causing displacement of innumerable farm laborers as well as wage cuts and shorter work periods. Migrant workers were hit the hardest. To withstand the rigor of the machines, new crop varieties were bred to match the automated pickers. UC Davis Professor G.C. Hanna propagated a thick-skinned tomato called VF-145. But even still, millions were damaged with impact cracks and university breeders produced a more tougher and juiceless “square round” tomato. Small farms were of insufficient size to obtain financing to purchase the equipment and within 10 years, 85% of the state's 4,000 cannery tomato farmers were out of the business. This led to a concentrated tomato industry in California that “now packed 85% of the nation’s tomato products”. The monoculture fields fostered rapid pest growth, requiring the use of “more than four million pounds of pesticides each year” which greatly affected the health of the soil, the farm workers, and possibly the consumers.
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- Wall Street Journal: "Robots Step Into New Planting, Harvesting Roles - Labor shortage spurs farmers to use robots for handling delicate tasks in the fresh-produce industry" By ILAN BRAT April 23, 2015
- Washington State University Extension - School of Economic Sciences: "Asparagus Production Economics" December 8, 2010
- Vegetable Growers News: "Mechanical Asparagus Harvester Almost a Reality" December 21, 2009
- Albuquerque Journal: "Chile harvester gets a field test in NM" By Diana Alba Soular September 22, 2014
- Current Argus: "Editorial: Trial could be a boon to chile farmers" July 31, 2015
- KJZZ: "New Mexico Researchers To Test Mechanized Green Chile Harvesting" by Carrie Jung July 29, 2015
- Las Cruces Sun: "Experts: Machines could reverse declining New Mexico green chile acreage" By Diana Alba Soular July 25, 2015
- University of California Davis Migration Files: "The Status of Labor-saving Mechanization in Fruits and Vegetables" By Wallace E. Huffman May 25, 2010
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- Japan Times: "Latest robot can pick strawberry fields forever" September 26, 2013
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