Labor and Automation in California Agriculture

Funded in 2021 by the University of California Office of the President Multi-Campus Research Program Initiative, the Labor and Automation in California Agriculture (LACA) assembles interdisciplinary researchers to solve food system resilience and human-centered agriculture technology to transform the workforce and environment of the future. This MRPI includes researchers from University of California Mercerd, Berkeley, Davis, and Riverside.


The LACA team is focused on four research thrusts:
  • AgTech: developing cutting-edge technology systems to monitor and manage resources and applications
  • Labor Impacts: engaging socio-economic factors for incorporation of new technologies
  • Environmental Impacts: create an agricultural model that incorporates data from AgTech for more sustainable farming practices
  • Underlying and Emerging Problems: deals with policy and labor related issues that may arise during the course of the LACA research


The AgTech thrust involves developing and testing novel Agricultural technology systems, specifically 3 types of stationary and robotic systems:
  • Multi-modal Precision Irrigation: An irrigation system which incorporates water resource management
  • Remote Sample Acquisition and Analysis: A scalable robotics design and prototype that can accurately assess and identify disease and pests while supporting environmental decision-making on fertilizer and pesticide application
  • Decision Making for Shared Autonomy in the Field: An autonomous decision-making system that can support agricultural task assignment decisions. 

Researchers: Konstantinos Karydis (lead), Amit Roy-Chowdhury, Erin Hestir, Stefano Carpin, Joshua Viers, Peggy Mauk

Labor Impact

The aim of this thrust is to understand AgTech adoption by farmers, the impact of adoption on farm labor, and the greater effect of the AgTech-Labor model on the California labor market.
  • AgTech Adoption: Synthesize AgTech adoption criteria into best practices for laborers, farmers and AgTech developers by characterizing AgTech adoption barriers and conducting research interviews with farmers.
  • Impacts on Labor: We will produce three inductive qualitative case studies on the adoption of the digital technologies in three crops or animal production. These case studies will be based upon semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and participatory research methods.
  • Labor Markets: Develop a better quantitative and qualitative understanding of the emerging AgTech labor market.

Researchers: Martin Kenney (lead), Anne Visser, David Zilberman, Peggy Mauk

Environmental impact

Our aim is to integrate environmental sustainability scaffolding into our AgTech-Labor model to enhance agrifood system resilience by protecting and regenerating soil, air, water, and agroecoystems in perpetuity.
  • Water Resources Management: Tools for transforming irrigation data to inform the net farm water use, salinity changes and storage, evapotranspiration, groundwater recharge, and assessments of economic and labor implications.
  • Soil Fertility and Regenerative Agriculture: AgTech-Environmental tools to monitor and sample for carbon and inform soil regeneration strategies.
  • Biodiversity in Agricultural Landscapes: AgTech-Environmental tools to integrate aerial and ground-based imagery, acoustic, and physical-chemical data to assess biodiversity and crop health.

Researchers: Colleen Naughton (lead), Thomas Harmon, Erin Hestir, Joshua Viers, Tapan Pathak

Underlying and emerging problems

As we collaboratively design the AgTech-Labor model, we anticipate the emergence of important issues implicating existing policy questions and debates. How these questions are framed and resolved will substantially influence the pace and character of the adoption of AgTech and its transformative effects for California’s agricultural, labor, and environmental sectors.

Researchers: John Zysman(lead), Brandie Nonnecke, John Cioffi, Peggy Mauk, Tapan Pathak

Our Approach to Engagement

k-12 Engagement

LACA will offer day camps for middle school students. The  day  camps  will  include  STEM  activities  (based  on the CITRIS Robotics curriculum) and will be coordinated by the LACA Education Director in collaboration with a  non-profit educational outreach organization, founded by UCM graduate students for children of migrant workers.

Education opportunities

  • First-year seminars: LACA faculty will provide seminars to first-year college students on resilient and equitable food systems with intercampus and extramural guest appearances.
  • Undergraduate research experiences: LACA will coordinate academic-year and summer paid internships spanning LACA research and partner practitioners in AgTech, Labor, and Environmental research thrust areas.
  • Community College Bridge Program: LACA will partner on a newly funded USDA Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates (REEU) in 2020 entitled San Joaquin Valley Food and Agriculture Cyberinformatics Tools and Science (FACTS) Bridge.
  • Cross-Campus General Education Course: An upper division general education course on LACA and food systems. The course will be offered remotely during a 10-week quarter to accommodate all campuses, with a segment scheduled for the UC spring break period to allow for a 3-day field trip to farm facilities in the San Joaquin Valley.


The LACA AgTech-Labor model will launch California farms to the forefront of resiliency and equity and empower a next generation labor force that understands and operates at the convergence of agricultural productivity, labor equity, and environmental sustainability.