Getting Creative: Key to Tackling Farm Labor Shortage
21 December 2018
By Brent Adams
Farmers across America are in the midst of the proverbial perfect storm when it comes to finding laborers to staff their operations.
H-2A visa regulations, viewed as onerous by the agriculture industry, have hamstrung efforts to hire foreign national workers at a time when many young workers who grew up on or around the farm are choosing a different career path. And, anticipation that the federal government will raise farm labor wage rates for 2019 under the “adverse effect wage rate” provision of the H-2A program could mean farm operators will be forced to pay more for labor at a time when crop prices are flat at best and many are racking up debt at a rapid pace to keep their farms in operation.
The end result is a crippling worker shortage at a time when most farmers can ill afford one more obstacle.
“The labor shortage issue is a never-ending battle,” said Michael Marsh, President and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers. “It doesn’t matter what part of the country you’re talking about, farmers are struggling to find workers.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for agricultural workers in 2017 was $23,730, or $11.41 per hour. In order to find and retain reliable, hard-working laborers, farmers must be creative in their approach, said Adam Sandersfeld, 32, who operates a commercial swine operation and feed lot near the town of Hartley in Northwest Iowa. He faces competition for workers from other farms, as well as from manufacturers who can offer benefits.
Because he doesn’t have an abundance of cash to throw at the four part-time workers on his payroll, he supplements their income with opportunities for them to borrow equipment such as a baler or a skid loader to do side jobs. In some instances Sandersfeld will look for side jobs such as cutting and bailing hay or bailing cornstalks. He and the workers can do the job together and split the revenue.
“It’s not a model that will work for everybody,” Sandersfeld said. “But when you can’t offer health care or a 401(k), you have to think differently. Of the people who help me, I have an 18-year-old, a 25-year-old, a 45-year-old and a 51-year-old, and we’ve created our own little niche, and I can call on guys by the project, based on their strengths and preferences. Only one of those guys had prior farming experience. The others are hard workers who just love what they do.”
And workers like that are becoming harder to find. That’s why once common but oft-overlooked personal touches sometimes speak volumes.
“I know (the farming lifestyle) is not as rewarding to some people as it is to those of us who live it and breathe it,” Sandersfeld said. “When we find those people, we want them to feel like they are a part of the success here, and we treat them like family. Usually every Saturday we sit down to a big meal together, so it’s not just about projects.”
Sandersfeld said he frequently seeks input from his employees so they feel like they are a part of the decision-making process. That is an approach Marsh believes should be adopted by all farm operators.
“You have to make sure you communicate with your employees and respect their efforts,” Marsh said. “If you don’t treat them as a key member of your team, they are not going to be a sustainable member of the team.”
He added that during his time as the CEO of Western United Dairymen and as Director of Finance and Administration for the Almond Board of California, he was impressed with farmers who went out of their way to show employees simple acts of kindness.
“If a worker’s daughter was celebrating a quinceañera, growers often would recognize that milestone and participate, or if a worker’s family had a new baby, they would do something special,” Marsh recalled. “Actions like that boost morale,” Marsh added. “And of course, just saying ‘thank you for a job well done’ can go a long way. I know it’s hard to find an extra buck to help somebody out, but many things can be done without spending a lot of money.”
Jim Campion, 37, whose family has been farming the same land in Peoria, Illinois, for 110 years, said fun and flexibility are about the only perks he is able to offer his three part-time employees. That makes it hard to compete with other farming operations in Central Illinois, as well as with skilled trades that are able to offer good pay and benefits.
“I know some guys who are able to pay six figures and the help they get is worth it,” Campion said. “I just don’t have the wherewithal to be able to do that. I’m lucky that I have guys who don’t mind hard work, especially at harvest time, because they know they can pick up some extra money close to the holidays. We just try to make the most of it, and you’ve got to have fun when you work.”
The challenge also is real for Dwight Martin and his family, owners of two dairy farms, as well as Wakarusa Ag, an agriculture and construction equipment dealer in the Northern Indiana town of Wakarusa.
They have one full-time employee at each of the dairy farms, which has a combined total of 500 heifers and cows. They also have 10 full-time employees at the dealership. At planting and harvest time, and whenever a need arises, some of the dealership employees also take on duties at the farms.
“For us, the key (to keeping people engaged) is providing a quality working environment,” Martin said. “We try to make it a friendly place. We stay productive, but it’s not like a piece-rate job where everyone is trying to meet quotas.”
Like Campion, the Martins also have to draw from a limited talent pool, depleted by a strong RV manufacturing industry in the area. According to the Reston, Virginia-based RV Industry Association, the industry shipped 422,286 units during the first 10 months of 2018. Many of those units are made in the Martins’ backyard.
“You can make really good money in those jobs, but we feel like we provide better working conditions,” Martin said. “Still, it’s hard to compete with what they are paying.”
Martin added that his operation struggles to find people who grew up on a farm, or are accustomed to manual labor and sometimes demanding hours. The BLS statistics bear out the fact those people aren’t likely to be found over the next decade. In 2018 there were 856,300 ag jobs, and it is expected there will be “little or no change” to that number by 2026, the BLS predicted.
“I think there are a decent amount of kids out there who would like to do it, but the challenge is finding people who aren’t scared to get their hands dirty,” Martin said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 38 percent of all agriculture workers are over age 44, while just 16.2 percent are under 25. The agency points out that young immigrants aren’t rushing to farm work as they once were, so immigrant farm labor also is getting older. As the workforce on the farm ages and kids who have grown up on the farm choose different careers, Campion said the shortage of willing workers has him thinking outside the box. He is considering the merits of participating in an exchange program that would let him legally bring in workers from other countries.
“I know other farmers have been successful in bringing in people from the EU or South Africa,” Campion said. “These are people who want to come here for a time to learn more about what we do. I think there could be some opportunities there.”
Michael Marsh, President and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers said that under the H-2A program the U.S. Department of Labor certified 242,762 temporary agricultural labor positions in fiscal 2018, ended Sept. 30, 2018. That was up from 160,084 positions a year earlier.
However, the demand remains greater than the number of certified workers.
“We are working with the Trump Administration on a reform process to address a couple key rules, one relating to the complexity of the forms that must be completed and processed. We would like to see a much more efficient and effective system in place to get responses back in a timely fashion,” Marsh said. “There has been an increase of more than 100,000 jobs over the past four years, and despite that kind of rapid growth, there has been no increase in staffing to process those applications. That has to change.”
The organization and its members also would like to see changes to what they view as an outdated regulation that requires farm operators to advertise for H-2A positions in local newspapers.
“These guys are spending millions of dollars to recruit workers at a time when fewer people are going to newspapers to look for employment,” Marsh said. “They are going online or on their cellphone.”
Marsh said the NCAE supports a proposed Department of Labor rule change that would replace the newspaper advertising (print and online) with a website-based system that would allow employers to use “at least one website that is widely used and appropriate for use by U.S. workers who are likely to apply for the job opportunity in the area of intended employment.”
Under the proposed guideline, employers would post positions to their state workforce agency and then to the Chicago National Processing Center, and then post the job to the website of their choosing for at least 14 consecutive days.
“This is great news and a good start to a needed reform process for the H-2A visa,” Marsh said. “We are pleased with the Administration’s effort in this regard and look forward to the unveiling of additional reforms.”
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