From the Archives: Lessons From Cotton's Slow-Motion Robot Takeover (with a bonus material from 1928!)
An occasional repost of recent (or in this case, not so recent) articles.
Technological unemployment, aka “the robots are taking our jobs,” is a perennial anxiety. Inspired by a recent Substack post from Jim Pethokoukis (theme: Progress is hard) I’m resurrecting this February 2018 column, in which I looked at the history of cotton harvesting.
But before I get to my own work, here’s an excerpt from a 1928 article from the Saturday Evening Post, written by my great-grandfather Frank Inman, who was an Atlanta-based cotton broker. My father dug the magazines out of family archives when I was starting work on The Fabric of Civilization.
Men have made many fantastic efforts to evolve a cheaper, if not a better, way of performing the most arduous work required in the production of cotton. Nowadays, though, my buyers often ship me bales of what we distinguish as sledded cotton. Instead of being hand-picked, this cotton has been harvested by a crude mechanism, the improvement of which is taxing the minds of inventors of agricultural machinery. Most of those in use today are homemade affairs, the usual form being a wagon bed with high slat sides. The open front is armed with a dozen or more long comb teeth of wood or steel. This contrivance is hauled by a team of horses or mules along the cotton row so that the teeth strip the cotton from the stalks in a fashion similar to an older hand method called snapping. Improved modern machinery at the gins, and later at the mills, cleans cotton harvested in this manner until its fibers are free from dirt, leaves, hulls and stalks.
The dam of this invention, as so often happens, was necessity. In 1926 Southern farmers planted the largest acreage of cotton in history. Growing conditions were favorable. On the southern plains of the Texas Panhandle there was a serious shortage of labor to pick the crop. Overnight, almost as if a wand had been waved over thou sands of square miles, bolls ripened and burst into fleecy whiteness. Farmers in that region, faced with the loss of a 500,000-bale crop, made themselves masters of the situation by creating thousands of sleds….
Sledded cotton is easily marketed, and to me this means that we of the cotton trade are watching the occurrence of a transition of tremendous importance. Like wheat, cotton is becoming a crop best suited for large-scale production. Agriculturally its course is westward.
Grain crops ripen on the stalk uniformly, so that the wheat growers of the Northwest can harvest their crop simply by driving their combines across their land until only stubble remains. Cotton, however, ripens most often in the manner of fruit, and the farmer must pick the bolls when they burst, not before and not long afterward. Sometimes the pickers go through a field again and again before they pluck the final cotton from the top bolls. The crop requires an average of three pickings.
Those Texas plants harvested by sleds were a smaller growth than we are accustomed to see in our fields in Georgia and the other South Atlantic States, and the bolls ripen uniformly. One picking was enough, and so the sleds were produced. It is not a matter about which anyone associated with the cotton trade wishes to be dogmatic, but I believe as time goes on there will be less and less hand-picked cotton.
One man with a sled can harvest from twelve to fifteen bales a day at a cost of about two dollars a bale, but the cheapest kind of hand-picked cotton, stripped from the stalks by hands shielded by heavy gloves, costs about seventeen dollars a bale. The cost of the old-fashioned clean cotton, in which the pickers take only the fully ripened cotton and no leaves or hulls, is much higher, and since the gins and the mills are now equipped with machinery that can do for cotton what the threshing machines and the cleaning machines of the mills have long done for wheat, the answer seems obvious. We are going to have an increasing amount of machine-picked cotton and a steadily decreasing amount of hand-picked fibers.
If the machines cannot be adjusted to harvest all the kinds of cotton now grown, then an economic pressure will force the individual farmer to grow only that kind of cotton which can be machine picked, or else to give up cotton growing.
Georgia, where I have spent my life, illustrates this clearly. Until only a few years ago I was accustomed to boast that my native state was the second-largest cotton-producing area in the South. Now it is fifth, and if it became sixth or seventh Georgians would not care, because they know the land that once was planted with cotton is being worked in other ways. Instead of merely producing a cash crop of cotton or corn, our farmers are growing apples, peaches, melons, tobacco and pecans. Industrial plants have been developed, too, so that fingers once engaged in picking cotton are now occupied in supervising the processes of spinning it. General diversification of farming has taken the place of dependence on only one crop.
Each year sees in the Southern States of the Atlantic seaboard a lessened acreage planted with cotton; each year sees an increase of cotton planting in the Southern States west of the Mississippi. As a sharp contrast with Georgia, there is Texas. Black, fertile soil there, where half-wild cattle grazed twenty years ago, has been turned now into limitless cotton fields. The modern tractor plows and cotton-harvesting machines can be operated economically on the big, level plantations of Texas as they cannot be on the undulating little farms of older states, where successive generations have seen the land divided into smaller and smaller units, and where the terrain is hilly and wooded.
And, now back to me—reporting from Texas 90 years later:
From the cab of Rodney Terry’s state-of-the-art John Deere cotton stripper, harvesting cotton seems like the easiest job in the world. We chug along at four or five miles an hour, watching the giant machine’s bright yellow fingers gobble up eight rows of bolls at a time. White rows magically turn brown as we pass over them. Then comes the reveal, as every few minutes a plastic-wrapped cylinder eight feet across plops out the back, holding as much as 5,000 pounds of cotton ready for the gin.
“This thing is just constantly moving,” says Terry, who farms 6,000 acres in Ropesville, Texas, a half hour’s drive southwest of Lubbock. The stripper cost a whopping $700,000, but it’s amazingly efficient. Terry can harvest 100 to 120 acres a day, compared to 80 with the previous generation of equipment, which had to stop periodically to empty its basket of harvested cotton into a trailer. He can also keep working in windy weather that would blow away loose bolls waiting to be wrapped in the field.
Most important, he no longer needs to hire a half dozen harvest workers to supplement his three full-time employees. Finding reliable seasonal laborers for farms and gins is increasingly difficult in West Texas. Locals blame government benefits that offer a better deal than temporary work. (“Don’t get me started,” says Terry.) Bringing in the harvest with his new setup takes only two people at a time: one to steer the stripper and one to drive a tractor that lines up the modules for the gin to pick up. Full-timers handle everything, and the machine can run all night if needed.
“I figured out this new machine, it’s displacing at least 1,000 people,” says Dan Taylor, a retired cotton farmer and gin owner in Ropesville. “It can harvest on a good day as much as a thousand people would harvest” in the days of hand-pulling cotton. Of course, most of those people left the cotton fields decades ago. The robots are taking the jobs -- and they’ve been doing it for at least 60 years. The story of how cotton harvesting has changed over the decades doubles as a reminder that even robots take their time. At least until a certain point.
1) Full automation was impossible without years of tinkering. Although mechanized cotton harvesters were available in the 1920s, they didn’t catch on until after World War II. As long as farms needed workers to hoe weeds and thin cotton plants, replacing them at harvest time made little economic sense. Chemicals, not machines, solved that part of the problem; the ground between rows in Terry’s field is perfectly bare.
Even that wasn’t the end of it. “The ancillary requirements seemed to go on and on,” wrote the late historian Donald Holley in The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the South. Gins had to install dryers, for instance, because machine-harvested cotton retained more moisture. Farmers needed chemical defoliants to apply before harvesting so that their bales wouldn’t be contaminated with leaf trash. Breeders had to develop shorter plants with bolls that emerged at the same time, allowing a single pass through the fields. Until all these things had happened, harvesters had limited appeal.
Replacing human adaptability and skill, in short, required much more than a single new machine. Production systems are far more complicated than outside commenters realize. Robots may eventually replace people in an industry, but it can take a long time.
2) The robot takeover created opportunities. Holley called his book “The Second Great Emancipation” for good reason. Hoeing weeds and picking cotton is brutally hard work, and in the American South an oppressive racial caste system kept many black laborers tied to the land. Mechanized cotton harvesting played a major role in breaking that system.
The most adaptable farmworkers moved on to better lives, as exemplified by Dorothy Ngongang, the retired Charlotte schoolteacher whose extended family recently bought the land on which her parents were sharecroppers. As children, she and her nine siblings had to leave school for months at a time to work in the fields. “They are on the land where they used to pick cotton,” her son Decker, whose tweets about the purchase went viral, told the Washington Post. “I recognize the significance of that, they recognize the significance of that.”
3) Even when automation is unquestionably a net benefit, there are losers. Mechanization also pushed out the least-able, leaving them without marketable skills. The old cotton belt includes some of the poorest parts of the country, with few jobs and many residents depending on government assistance. “The federal government heavily subsidized and coordinated the mechanization of cotton production but failed to absorb the adjustment costs of those harmed by the results,” observe economists Wayne A. Grove and Craig Heinicke in a 2003 study. They calculated that the push of mechanization was twice as important as the pull of higher wages in the postwar period.
How to help displaced workers is a hard problem. Government checks may save people from destitution but they can also encourage them to stay too long in declining towns—a lesson to those who see the universal basic income as an easy solution to technological unemployment. Adaptation requires more than money.
Make no mistake, however. Saving human beings from hard manual labor represented progress. It freed people for more rewarding and productive jobs and raised the overall standard of living. Today the enemy is mental tedium. Computers don’t get distracted or bored. They, too, do jobs that people don’t especially like, whether measuring lymph nodes on batches of CT scans or scanning Walmart shelves for out-of-stock items and incorrect prices. Radiologists and store employees have better, more intrinsically human ways to use their work time. “This boring, repetitive task of scanning the shelves—we have yet to meet someone who has liked to do that. Employees instantly become the advocates for the robot,” Martin Hitch, chief business officer at robot-maker Bossa Nova, told Technology Review. When such mind-numbing tasks disappear, few people will mourn their passing, any more than the children of sharecroppers long to spend their summers hoeing weeds and their autumns pulling cotton bolls.