How Has Ag Labor Availability Impacted Your Operation?

I recently read the results of a study conducted by the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) and the University of California, Davis on how farmworker scarcity has impacted the state. About 473,000 workers are needed on California farms and ranches, and that figure is about 2.5 million nationwide.

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Of the 1,071 farmers and ranchers who participated in this survey, 56% of them say they did not hire all the employees they needed this year. This is not a new phenomenon, as 70% of those same farmers and ranchers said they had difficulty filling positions in 2017 and 2018.

It’s no secret the ag labor force is changing. American Fruit Grower Editor David Eddy and I have spent numerous pages in the magazine covering the changes in birth rates, economic opportunities within guest workers’ own countries, etc., as reasons for this shortage.

What I found interesting about this survey was how different impacts of labor shortages were examined, from crops grown to cultivation practices.

Of growers surveyed within California, 37% say they’re changing their growing practices to make up for the labor loss. And, 31% of farmers and ranchers surveyed said they’re not just changing their cultivation techniques, they’re changing what they produce, too, opting for more mechanically harvested crops such as nuts and row crops.

Notably, the majority of respondents — 86% — say they increased wages to entice labor to work for them.

This data mirrored responses to our 2019 American Fruit Grower and Western Fruit Grower State of the Fruit and Nut Industry survey, where 63% of respondents say the greatest challenge to finding and keeping farming personnel is the cost of labor, including wage and benefits.

Within our own State of the Industry survey, only 19% of growers say they use H-2A. In the CFBF survey, only 6% of respondents say they use H-2A.

For most of our State of the Industry respondents, labor contractors were the most popular option to secure labor for smaller growers. What was most striking, though, was how important relationships were to staffing the farm. Most growers commented on how workers have returned for years and years, sometimes as long as two decades, thanks to good wages and employee treatment.

“We have an excellent reputation in the Hispanic community as a good-paying, fair, and respectful employer,” a nut grower in the West commented in our survey. “Our retention rate — even among our seasonal workers — is above 90%.”

The need is clearly there, and it’s not going away. So, what to do?

It’s no secret that the need for immigration reform — with a strong ag labor component — is needed. While this is a busy time of year, it’s also the congressional recess. So, now’s as good of a time as any to connect with your representatives and senators on their summer break.

Tell them how H-2A impacts your operation, what type of challenges you face securing labor yearly, and why ag labor reform is critical for the future of our industry. Invite them to your operation to have them understand some of the challenges to orchard and vineyard tasks.

The more informed they are of your needs, the more they will be able to advocate for you as immigration is being bandied about federally.

Because let’s face it, we need all the help we can get.