Mar 14, 2017
States find ways to deal with labor shortages

It’s hard to know the exact number of seasonal specialty crop workers in the United States, but Frank Gasperini thinks 1.5 million is a good estimate.

Seasonal worker shortages have been an issue in the last few years, though, averaging roughly 25 percent to 30 percent. These shortages have resulted in a focus on higher-value and easier- to pick-crops, as well as an increase in mechanization and other methods of boosting productivity, said Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.

Different states are finding different ways to deal with the situation.

Michigan needs roughly 40,000 to 45,000 temporary seasonal agriculture workers. But the domestic labor supply is trending downward and is insufficient to meet the state’s labor needs – especially during peak times, said Bob Boehm, a labor specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau.

There are several things growers can do to combat worker shortages. One is to join the H-2A foreign guest-worker program, which is growing in Michigan and elsewhere. Some employers are returning to traditional labor sources, such as high schools, retirees and work-release programs. All of these options have limits, including worker availability and job capabilities, but some farms have used them to supplement their work forces, Boehm said.

Boehm made a few more suggestions. Partner with farms in other areas that have opposite work windows for possible recruitment. Maintain contact with workers throughout the year to encourage their return. Know your jobs and correctly describe them. Potential workers want to know what you expect of them and what they will receive in return. Some employers offer piece-rate payments that allow workers to significantly exceed wage minimums, as well as bonus programs for those who meet production standards, complete contracted units on time or finish the entire season.

Doug Horkey laid out some of the difficulties his family farm, Horkey Brothers in Dundee, Michigan, has had with labor shortages. Last year, they were short eight workers for about a 10-day period. Not a huge loss, but by the time they made up the difference orders had been canceled and the market price had dropped substantially. They also have to put up with workers leaving a week or two early, or workers doing a poor job.

Local workers are few and far between. They can find a few willing to work on the packing lines, but seldom in the field. The migrant workers that do work in the field find it unfair that some employees are allowed to pick which job they do, Horkey said.

And because everyone has a phone now, if a farmer 100 miles away is paying a little more, or has an easier job available, the whole migrant community knows about it. Or, workers might quit one day, go to a job they think is better, realize it’s not what they were led to believe and want to come back the next day, he said.

“It is nearly impossible to run a business like this,” Horkey said.

Dan Fazio, director of wafla, a labor recruitment company, said Washington state needs approximately 80,000 seasonal workers, about 50,000 of whom are domestic. The number of domestic workers is trending sharply down, however, while the number of H-2A workers is trending sharply higher. H-2A labor certifications topped 15,000 in Washington last year, compared with more than 12,000 in 2015. H-2A numbers have increased by 25 percent or more each year for the past five years and are expected to grow by double digits in the next several years, though Fazio thinks the trend will slow eventually because tree fruit growers cannot afford to build the required housing due to an anticipated price decline in some crops.

Growers also are investing in automation to solve the labor shortage, Fazio said.

Mike Carlton, director of labor relations for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said there are roughly 150,000 farm workers in Florida. It has become increasingly difficult for farmers to find able, willing and qualified domestic workers, and for many years the vast majority of farm work has been done by the immigrant community.

The most telling statistic is the growth of the H-2A program. In 2010, Florida employed approximately 4,500 H-2A workers, but by 2016 that number had risen to more than 22,800. This significant growth in a program no one would choose to use unless there was no other alternative is reflective of agriculture nationwide, Carlton said.


California – which needs roughly 470,000 seasonal specialty crop workers, according to Gasperini – will be the state to watch in the next few years. The state government enacted two pieces of legislation last year that will put farm employers in a significant bind. First came the law to gradually raise California’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022. Then came the overtime bill, which, beginning in 2019, will lower the threshold beyond which farm workers get paid overtime from 10 hours a day to eight hours a day (or 40 hours a week) by 2022.

Between the overtime and minimum wage bills, California agriculture’s production costs are going to jump significantly in the next few years, said Eric Schwartz, CEO of the United Vegetable Growers Cooperative.

Fruit and vegetable growers might bear the biggest burden. According to a study cited by Western Growers, labor costs for California’s produce operations already range from 46 percent to 58 percent of total operating costs. The pending minimum wage and overtime bills will increase those labor costs by 20 percent for vegetable growers and 25 percent for fruit growers.

Labor costs can be contained in a number of ways, including by reducing production, shifting to less labor-intensive crops and mechanization. But each of these options either reduces farm worker hours and wages or eliminates jobs entirely, according to Western Growers.

Bryan Little, a labor affairs specialist with California Farm Bureau Federation, said employers and employees might try informal work-sharing arrangements. If an employee, for example, can only work 40 hours a week for one employer, he or she might turn to another employer to get those extra hours. He also mentioned mechanization. Some commodities, like strawberries and avocados, don’t lend themselves to machine harvest, but neither did pruning grapevines 10 years ago – a common practice now, Little said.

“Technology can change,” he said.

Growers also might consider planting permanent crops, like nut trees, that are less labor-intensive. It’s a long-term commitment but can lower costs down the road, Little said.

Ramiro Lobo, a UC small farms and agricultural economics adviser, said reducing acreage, switching to less labor-intensive crops, moving production out of state, downsizing operations, investing in technology, increasing mechanization, reevaluating employee benefits and reducing hours worked per week all could help growers mitigate the overtime rule’s impact.

Daniel Sumner, a UC professor of agricultural and resource economics, suggested making little adjustments to boost your workforce production, such as changes in growing practices (field spacing, varieties, tree sizes, mechanical aids). He said helping vulnerable workers deal with immigration issues builds their loyalty. He also suggested less labor-intensive crops, or using labor in the off-season to keep the workforce employed. Guest-worker programs may be useful, too. Consider combinations of full-time and part-time workers to respond to peak seasons. Many workers have relied on many hours per week during peak seasons, and may be in the market for part-time work if the overtime wage rules limit their hours at a primary employer, he said.

In regions with a high cost of living, the $15-per-hour-minimum wage is already a norm for many vineyard employers. Local wineries will pay the price to cover the cost of wages and additional benefits. There seem to be enough consumers of $50 to $100 bottles of Napa and Sonoma wines to cover these expenses, said Guadalupe Sandoval, executive director of the California Farm Labor Contractor Association.

For most agricultural employers, however, it is not feasible to pass on increased labor costs to consumers. Large grocery chains set the market rates. As a result, producers are becoming more creative in managing their labor needs. This includes increased investments in mechanization. There have been tomato harvesting machines for decades, replacing thousands of farm workers. Now there are winegrape, lettuce and even strawberry harvest machines. Growers now have machines to prune orchards and vineyards.

There are robotic machines that can be programmed to move products around nurseries and other fixed sites. The scarcity and cost of labor will continue to make these expensive machines more economically viable for agricultural employers, Sandoval said.

California has seen a significant increase in the utilization of H-2A workers. The program is expensive and difficult to manage, however. The biggest hurdle for most agricultural employers is the costly housing requirement, he said.

Employers also are hiring many more women into agricultural jobs previously considered “men-only.” The percentage of women who make up the agricultural workforce continues to increase. Access to child care has historically been an impediment for many women to join their husbands in farm work, but innovative employers are working with community groups to increase child care access, Sandoval said.

Employers also are looking at their compensation packages and personnel management practices. Keeping workers happy through more positive supervision is crucial, he said.

— Matt Milkovich, managing editor


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