Local Agriculture and Labor Shortages

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Local Agriculture and Labor Shortages

Key Takeaways

  • One of the reasons for the agriculture labor shortage is the workers' preference for less labor-intensive jobs. According to Marty Yahner, manager of a beef farm in Cambria County, "Let's be brutally honest, Americans don't want to manual labor."
  • The latest census that was released in August 2021 revealed that rural areas in the US have a declining population. This is another reason that contributed to the labor shortage in agriculture.
  • Larger local farms have been relying on foreign workers and the H-2A federal program, while other farmers rely heavily on part-time workers such as high school students who are looking for a summer job.

Introduction

This research presents insights into the current state of local agriculture and labor shortages in the US. This report includes insights on the reasons for the agricultural labor shortage. The details are outlined below.

1. Preference for less labor-intensive jobs

  • In terms of hiring full-time workers, the agriculture industry has been competing with the restaurant and warehouses industry. The agriculture industry is at a disadvantage because farm employers can't afford the benefits that are offered by other industries, such as an application bonus, a higher starting salary, air conditioning, and responsibilities that are less labor-intensive.
  • One of the reasons for the agriculture labor shortage is the workers' preference for less labor-intensive jobs. According to Marty Yahner, manager of a beef farm in Cambria County, "Let's be brutally honest, Americans don't want to manual labor."
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture's 2021 report states that Pennsylvania farming is "an $81 billion-a-year industry." In spite of the abundance of available jobs, the majority of farmers expressed that local workers are uninterested in taking the available farm jobs. The difficulty of hiring farm workers even increased when the pandemic hits.
  • According to Jayne Sebright, Center for Dairy Excellence's executive director, "It's even more challenging now to find people who want to work on farms than it was before." Center for Dairy Excellence is a Harrisburg-based advocacy organization.
  • Michael Kovach, Mercer County's Walnut Hill Farm owner and Pennsylvania Farmers Union's vice president, said something similar. According to Kovach, "(The last year) just amplifies all those same old things. Basically, if it was difficult to find good help before when there's a dearth of labor, then it's even more difficult (now.) It feels like we're perennially short-handed."

2. Rising entry-level wages in other industries

  • Another reason for the agriculture labor shortage is the rising entry-level salaries in other industries. Farmers have shared that "the recent trend toward rising wages for entry-level jobs is making it even harder to drum up interest."
  • Amazon has a $15 per hour starting wage, McDonald's and other restaurants are raising pay, while the entry-level salary in farming is just $10.46 per hour.
  • Some even have lower wages. For instance, the entry-level wage of agricultural equipment operators is just $8.68 per hour, while "farmworkers and laborers who work with crops or in the nursery or greenhouse make about $9.69."

3. Declining population in rural America

  • The latest census that was released in August 2021 revealed that rural areas in the US have a declining population. This is another reason that contributed to the labor shortage in agriculture.
  • In Nebraska, only 24 out of 93 counties gained residents. Out of the 24 counties, only "eight reported an increase in the white population."
  • In New Mexico, 20 rural counties have populations that declined. Out of desperation to find "laborers for its annual chile harvest," the state boosted the available wage to $19.50 per hour last August 2021. The funds came from the $5 million federal pandemic relief, which was used to subsidize the workers' wages.

4. Reliance on foreign workers and H-2A federal program

  • Larger local farms have been relying on foreign workers and the H-2A federal program. The H-2A program offers seasonal visas for foreign workers who want to labor on the farm.
  • The drawback of this program is in the added expense on farm employers. A Butler County farmer shared that he spent over $5,500 before the hired workers even arrived. It was spent on transportation and lawyer fees.
  • The Agricultural Workforce Coalition (AWC), together with "300 other trade unions, signed a letter requesting that the Senate reform immigration policies so that the agriculture labor shortage concerns are addressed." The unions are asking for the "expansion of the H-2A visa program to allow for year-round, uncapped labor."
  • The Farm Workforce Modernization Act was passed by the US House of Representatives in March 2021. The legislation seeks to address some concerns with the H-2A program, such as the modification of the minimum wage for H-2A workers, establishing minimum work hours, and expansion of the program's availability "for agricultural work that is not temporary or seasonal."

5. Reliance on part-time workers

  • Cambria County's Vale Wood Farms have been relying heavily on part-timers after having difficulty hiring full-time workers. Even with the provision of benefits for the would have been full-time hired workers, Vale Wood Farms still struggled "to fill positions for full-time work."
  • According to Carissa Itle Westrick, Vale Wood Farms' director of business development, "Our sort of Plan B here is to hire a handful of high school kids looking for summer work. It's not like the cows are going to cross their legs because we don't have the right person here."

6. A 1% expected increase in agricultural employment

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that there is a 1% expected increase in the "employment of agricultural workers" from 2019 to 2029. This is considered to be "slower than the average for all occupations."
  • The Department of Labor and Industry's 2020 data has shown that there are almost 7,050 Pennsylvania workers in the farming, forestry, and fishing sectors.
  • The annual Farm Labor report of the USDA also revealed that "US farms and livestock operations employed 11% fewer workers during one-week periods this past January and April compared to the comparable weeks in 2020."

Research Strategy

For this research on local agriculture and labor shortages, we leveraged the most reputable sources of information in the public domain, including US News, USA Today, AP News, Dairy Herd, and National Law Review.

Research proposal:

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