The Disappearing Workforce: Vegetable Growers Need Labor
This year’s State of the Industry Survey had a lot to reveal this year, especially about what has the industry most concerned.
The No. 1 issue for vegetable growers isn’t pests, food safety, or even weather. It’s a lack of labor.
We Need to Find a Solution to Low Labor
Growers handle a lot of issues, from pests to uncooperative weather to heavy regulations. But all of those pale in the face of labor issues, American Vegetable Grower® magazine’s 2017 State of the Industry survey reveals.
Labor issues identified by the survey included finding qualified workers, minimum wage increases, expenses related to H-2A, and how to keep dancing to increasing regulatory demands to ensure the workforce is legal.
It’s an issue affecting all levels of the industry and all parts of the country. Growers with only 25 to 100 acres were as likely to cite labor as their No. 1 concern as those with five, ten, and even 100 times the acreage.
Perhaps in response to these pressures, a higher percentage of growers mentioned investing in mechanization than did in last year’s survey.
Larger growers (which our survey classified as opertions of more than 1,000 acres) are trying to fill more specialized positions, which adds another layer of complexity to keeping an operation fully staffed. Because labor can be scarce, 71% of large growers have developed and promoted employees from lower level positions. Here’s a quick run down of positions that more than 60% large growers need to fill:
3. Food Safety Managers
4. Production Managers
5. Quality Control Managers
What labor issues, exactly, are growers citing as a challenge?
* Their operation’s remote location
* The cost to the grower (including the ability to pay enough to attract new talent)
* Long hours aren’t attractive
* The job pool is too narrow for specific needs
* Heavy regulations
* Cultural differences with immigrant workers
Growers of all sizes shared how they were making things work at their farm. Some of the more innovative approaches included exchange programs with other farms, developing future workers through internships, and relying on old-fashioned self-promotion as great employers.
Most small growers (fewer than 100 acres) surveyed are able to rely on local labor, while others who do not currently use H-2A are gearing up their operation so they can qualify for foreign workers to help relieve the shortage.
About the 2017 State of the Industry Survey
Why do we survey the industry? Vegetable growers may be spread across the U.S. in many climates and terrain, grow more diverse crops than any other group of food growers, but it’s an industry that relies on sharing ideas, data, and support. Once a year American Vegetable Grower magazine reaches out to learn how healthy the industry is, and which issues are most dominant. Your responses help guide what we decide to investigate for the rest of the year.
How many responded? 310
What did we ask? Questions ranged from the basics (Where are you? What do you grow?) to measuring (What are you growing? Where are you investing?) to the more explorative (Would you grow GMO crops? Do you have succession planning underway? What worries you?).