GAMS VGN FGN farm labor survey farmworker harvest

Jun 17, 2024
Special report: Labor challenges persist

Fruit and vegetable growers voice concerns in 2024 labor survey.

In the ever-evolving landscape of agriculture, labor remains a perennial concern for fruit and vegetable growers. Results of the latest labor survey, conducted among fruit and vegetable growers across the U.S., shed light on the ongoing challenges faced by growers and the strategies being considered to navigate them.

Comparison with previous years

In 2019, a majority (54%) of respondents reported having enough labor, while 45.75% faced shortages, according to the annual fruit and vegetable labor survey, conducted by Fruit Growers News and its sister publication, Vegetable Growers News.

Fast forward to 2023, and the balance has shifted, with 46% reporting adequate labor. This trend continued into 2024, indicating a persistent struggle for growers to meet specific labor needs.

H-2A usage and outsourcing trends

The H-2A program remains a vital resource for many growers. In 2024, exactly half of respondents reported utilizing H-2A labor. Interestingly, a significant portion (83%) of those employing H-2A workers opted to outsource the recruiting process. However, when it came to fully outsourcing the H-2A process and labor management, opinions were divided, with 49.49% choosing this route.

 

“The new H-2A legal process and wages have caused my company to completely outsource our labor force to handle recruitment,” a grower wrote. “With increased wages and labor contractor fees, I have been forced to reduce the quantity of my workforce. A smaller workforce means I have to manage harvest more efficiently and spend more money to work overtime. Overall, the new wages and legal process has significantly cut into my bottom line and margins.”

Impact of legal process and wage requirements

The introduction of new legal processes and wage requirements has significantly influenced growers’ use of the H-2A program. Respondents expressed various concerns, which can be categorized into several common themes.

Cost and affordability: Nearly half of the respondents (44%) cited concerns about the increasing costs associated with the H-2A program, making it challenging to afford.

“The increasing costs of the program and wages continues to put some growers at competitive disadvantage to others,” a grower stated. “If you are able to raise prices to offset increased costs, then you may be able to come out ahead but if you are a price taker then you can’t.”.

“New wage is too high,” another grower responded. “Labor is up, fertilizers up, shipping up, chemicals up, etc., food in the stores is up, but I’m still getting the same amount for our veggies. If this keeps going and more farmers go under and are no longer farming where will our SAFE food come from? Something needs to be done with the H-2A wage.”

Download the 2024 FGN Labor Survey report now graphic with berries in the background

 

Wage increases are pressing agricultural employers. 

“Georgia is becoming increasingly reliant on the (H-2A) program especially in terms of fruit and vegetable production,” said Chris Butts, vice president of Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association. “Our industry is faced with double-digit wage increases and regulatory burdens are increasing. Economically, it is becoming unviable to use H-2A, but unfortunately it is our only option … we are in a bad place right now.”

 Impact on profitability: For 21% of respondents, the new wage requirements were highlighted as negatively affecting their profitability and sustainability. 

“The Adverse Wage Rate is not affordable for us,” a grower stated.. Our commodity prices are not increasing at the rates to afford this wage. We are forced to raise less hand-harvested crops.” 

“Makes me wonder why!,” another grower stated. “Why do these pay rates keep increasing? Especially, since they are basing these numbers off a workforce of U.S. workers that does not exist. I would like to continue to grow my business, but I will not be able to due to new added costs on labor.”

Decreased use of H-2A: 16% mentioned using the H-2A program less or considering discontinuing its use due to the new wage requirements.

Regulatory burden: Approximately 14.49% of respondents found the legal process and associated regulations burdensome.

“Too complicated, we need our same people to return every year,” a grower stated.

“We are not sure how much longer we will be able to afford to participate in this program,” another grower wrote. “It has become so expensive, the bottom line is very thin.”

Impact on crop production: While a smaller percentage (7%) mentioned reducing acreage or crops requiring hand labor due to wage requirements, the impact on crop production remains a concern.

“We are lowering the amount of acres we produce on in order to cut costs,” a grower wrote. “If the costs are not lowered, we are considering getting out of fruit all together. That’s a big decision as we are fifth generation growers. It’s a huge national food security problem that needs to be addressed.”

Concerns about future viability: A notable 9% expressed concerns about the future viability of their farming operations if wage requirements continue to rise.

Addressing Labor Shortages in 2024

“We have been removing crops that require hand labor because prices for wages are no longer profitable,” a grower stated.

Ag laborCoping strategies

With labor shortages persisting, growers are exploring various strategies to cope:

Automation: A quarter of respondents (26%) noted that they are considering automation to mitigate labor shortages, with harvesting (64%) and weed control (53%) being the most common areas targeted.

Growing less: More than half (54.12%) are contemplating growing fewer crops to manage labor constraints.

Other strategies: Diverse approaches include exploring alternative labor sources, adjusting marketing strategies, and considering government programs like the H-2A program.

“This year we have cut back our use of H-2A from over 100 to 25,” a grower responded. “We can not afford the rising labor costs.”

Additional labor insights

Respondents provided additional insights into the labor situation in agriculture, highlighting concerns such as:

Cost of labor: Increasing labor costs, especially through programs like H-2A, are becoming unsustainable for smaller farms, impacting profitability.

Regulatory burdens: Regulatory requirements and overtime rules are increasing the burden on farmers, with frustration over paperwork and compliance.

Impact on farming operations: Labor shortages and high costs directly affect operations, leading to downsizing or even closure of farms.

H-2A concerns: While appreciated, the H-2A program’s rising costs and administrative burdens pose challenges for growers.

Government policy and support: There’s frustration with government policies perceived as detrimental to the industry’s viability and food supply.

“Trade and labor are two overarching issues now and everything else plays second seat to that,” Butts said.

The findings of the labor survey underscore the persistent challenges faced by fruit and vegetable growers regarding labor shortages and rising costs. While automation and other strategies offer potential solutions, there’s a clear call for policy reforms and support to ensure the long-term sustainability of farming operations.

Download the survey here.

— By Debbie Eisele and Doug Ohlemeier


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