#22 Labor Shortages
The major impetus for developing a mechanical tomato harvester was the lack of harvesting labor. The earliest mechanization efforts came during World War II when there was a shortage of labor due to military and industrial demands. The US Congress established the Bracero program, and by 1962 nearly 80 percent of the tomato harvesting workforce was from Mexico.
However, controversy overshadowed progress. Cesar Chavez, the leader of the United Farm Workers union, pleaded the case of thousands of laborers who had been displaced by machines. He criticized U.C. agricultural engineers and scientists for mechanization. Complaints had a chilling effect on mechanization research within universities and the federal government laboratories for years to come.
Yet, the public investment in mechanization has had a positive outcome in maintaining the competitiveness of US agriculture. Where there has been mechanization, there is a general trend for US agriculture to meet domestic needs and to produce a surplus to feed the world. Mechanization fueled tomato production, and new agricultural businesses created increased demand for workers. Mechanization also had a positive effect in the treatment of people by reducing the backbreaking work required of laborers.