Where can we find the workers we need?

Photos By Scott Bauer.
Many growers say that their operations would come to a grinding halt without foreign workers, yet some sources claim there is no shortage of American laborers.

What is your greatest challenge? With few exceptions, growers say it’s labor. Many add that their operations would come to a grinding halt without foreign workers, yet some sources claim there is no shortage of American laborers. Who will plant and harvest your crops this season, next year and a decade into the future?

Is there a labor shortage?

In a January 2007 report to Congress on farm labor shortages, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) states that “indicators of supply-demand conditions generally are inconsistent with the existence of a nationwide shortage of domestically available farmworkers, in part because the measures include both authorized and unauthorized employment. This finding does not preclude the possibility of farmworker shortages in certain parts of the country at various times during the year.” The report states that slightly more than 50 percent of seasonal workers are employed illegally. Possible reasons cited for that include a grower preference for undocumented workers, but omit the idea that it is due to a lack of legal labor. Farm owners say that there are many reasons to avoid illegal workers, including the legal penalties for doing so.

CRS suggests that increased mechanization and higher wages would result in reduced labor needs; growers counter that mechanization isn’t possible for some crops. In addition, the costs associated with both mechanization and increased wages would make American produce less competitive in the marketplace. However, the United States Department of Agriculture reports that some California grape growers have resorted to mechanical harvest methods “because of the worker shortages.” The shortage was attributed to “unsettled political issues on immigration.”

With more than 7 million Americans unemployed in 2006, perhaps there is an adequate labor supply in theory. Whether or not those people are located in, or prepared to relocate to, farming regions hasn’t been explored, nor is it known how many are willing and able to accept seasonal agricultural employment. Growers’ efforts to hire American citizens generally haven’t met expectations.

North Carolina fruit and vegetable grower, Doug Patterson, participated in a panel discussion at the 2007 Southeast Strawberry Expo. He said his experience with native laborers hasn’t been positive. As required to demonstrate the need for H-2A workers, Patterson lists his jobs with the Employment Security Commission and must hire all applicants, including those with criminal records.

“Within three days, they quit,” he said. “ I’ve never had to fire one.” 

The higher wages required for agricultural workers don’t seem to motivate Americans, Patterson added. The 2007 adverse effect wage in his state was $9.07, about 30 percent higher than North Carolina’s minimum wage of $6.15. Nationwide, the rate ranges from $8.01 in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi to $10.32 in Hawaii.

Other growers say that local unemployment rates are so low that there are no citizen applicants. Societal changes also have an impact. One farm operator stated that today’s high school students, once a reliable summer labor source, are unwilling to accept farmwork.

The need for farm help remains strong. The Department of Agriculture reports that there were 1.122 million hired workers on the country’s farms during late October 2007. That represents a 3 percent increase over the comparable time in 2006. Hourly wages for field workers averaged $9.62, an increase of 36 cents from the prior year. Increased hiring occurred in some areas affected by dry weather, which hastened ripening; in other places, drought resulted in a need for fewer laborers. Wet conditions in the Pacific Northwest also reduced hiring.

Labor sources

Many farmers say, and have so testified to Congress, that the only reliable labor source available is the H-2A program. Given the expense and paperwork associated with hiring those workers, it seems reasonable that it is a last resort. Patterson estimated his cost of getting one H-2A worker to his farm at $1,000 on top of the housing and wages he must supply during the season.

Most growers use farm labor contractors (FLC) due to the burdensome paperwork associated with the H-2A program; experts caution that sloppy documentation by a contractor can leave a farmer as liable as if he’d managed the process himself. Others use grower associations that facilitate the procedures; such groups may be able to supply workers for shorter time periods.

Are there benefits to using FLCs? The University of California studied the practices of area fruit growers and found that three-quarters of those who hire their workers directly thought that such laborers produce higher-quality work. They stated that the hiring method didn’t affect wages, but the total cost is higher when engaging FLCs. Many felt that using FLCs ensured labor availability while relieving them of paperwork and recruitment duties. Some stated that recent increases in record-keeping requirements and liability have led them to work with FLCs.

Although some growers find today’s young people pursuing other summer employment, others have success with both high school and college students, especially those pursuing agriculture-related degrees. Child labor laws may limit hours and duties, but part-time and summer work is possible. The J-1 Visa Program allows foreign students studying agriculture to work in the United States, but receiving homeland security clearance has become more difficult. Others find part-time help from seniors and stay-at-home mothers.

Hiring tips

Ohio State University’s Bernard L. Erven says that there are ways to successfully recruit and retain American workers, while agreeing that the labor market is tight. He adds that a commitment to analyze and develop a hiring plan is required.

He says it is vital to demonstrate that your jobs are better than other local employment, allowing you to attract higher-quality workers. Offer a job description that includes the importance of the assigned work and gives the worker responsibility for and input concerning his duties. Don’t forget that the Internet is the medium of choice for many, so list your positions on your Web site and online job boards.

Offer fair wages and as many benefits as possible. Health insurance, sick and vacation leave, as well as pay differentials are benefits to consider. Intangibles that help make your farm a good place to work include your learning a second language, if appropriate, and special touches such as birthday and holiday celebrations. One result may be referrals to other possible workers. You can extend that by guiding your current employees in recruitment and offering cash incentives when their recruits are hired and/or stay on board for a specified period. Erven suggests monetary bonuses upon the hiring of the recruit, after three months of satisfactory work and again on the one-year anniversary.

Looking to the future

Many growers believe that the future must include a fair guest worker and/or immigration program if American agriculture is to continue. At press time, the ag jobs bill was in limbo. The primary provisions of that legislation included a two-step “legalization” or “earned adjustment” program under which undocumented farmworkers who have been working here may gain temporary resident immigration status and later earn permanent resident immigration status upon completing additional employment in U.S. agriculture during the next three to five years. Revisions to the H-2A program also were incorporated.

Regardless of the actions of Congress, it seems that foreign labor is here to stay. The key may lie in wiping out the stigma associated with that workforce. As Patterson said, “The public needs to be educated on the facts that H-2A workers are well paid and Americans won’t take these jobs.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.