Labor Crisis?

Reading an article about pollinator loss in The American Vegetable Grower magazine (an industrial ag publication), this sentence caught my attention: “The bee issue may not be as in your face as solving the labor crisis, but these beneficial pollinating insects have an important job: they help increase yields of fruit and vegetable crops.”

The labor crisis? What labor crisis? I wondered.

I consulted the Google and discovered that there is indeed a critical labor shortage on industrial vegetable farms. These mega-farms have traditionally depended upon undocumented (“illegal”) farm workers from Mexico for their labor supply. And with the recent steep drops in illegal immigration, now they’re not able to get their crops harvested.

Consider this, from a Wall Street Journal article (HERE):

Last year, about a quarter of Biringer Farm’s strawberries and raspberries rotted in the field because it couldn’t find enough workers. Samantha Bond was determined not to let that happen again.

Early this year, Ms. Bond, human resources manager for the 35-acre farm in Arlington, Wash., offered 20% raises to the most productive workers from the last harvest. She posted help-wanted ads on Craigslist, beside highways and on the bathroom-stall door at a church. She also successfully lobbied local high schools to broadcast her call for workers during morning announcements.

Despite Ms. Bond’s efforts, Biringer again faced a worker shortage and typically drew fewer than 60 of the roughly 100 employees it needed on harvest days. “There was definitely hair-pulling going on,” she said.

Ms. Bond’s travails reflect a broader struggle by U.S. fruit, vegetable and dairy farms to secure farmhands as illegal immigration from Mexico declines and a strengthened U.S. economy makes it easier for people to find less backbreaking work, often in areas with cheaper housing costs. In an industry notorious for poor working conditions, farm companies are wooing employees by raising wages faster than inflation and enhancing medical and other benefits. Even so, many farms say these efforts have failed to meaningfully address their worker shortfalls.

Overall in the U.S., the decline in workers is reducing fruit and vegetable production by 9.5%, or $3.1 billion, a year, according to a recently published analysis of government data by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonpartisan group that supports a looser immigration policy.

The problem started years ago and was temporarily exacerbated this summer by a glitch that snarled processing for seasonal-worker visas and delayed the arrival in the U.S. of thousands of legal farm laborers, leading to millions of dollars of crop losses in California and other states.

More broadly, growers say they are bearing the brunt of the federal government’s crackdown on illegal immigration, as they lack a suitable alternative workforce. U.S.-born workers unaccustomed to farm labor abandon the job after just days during harvest, farm owners say, and the supply of mostly Mexican laborers that made up for them has shrunk in recent years. That is partly due to tighter U.S. control of its southern border and a declining Mexican birthrate that has decreased the number of young workers heading to the U.S.

Nationwide, the average hourly wages for crop workers hired directly by farmers have climbed 5.3% to $11.33, adjusted for inflation, in the past four years, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. That runs counter to the overall long-term trend for low-skilled work in U.S. retail and other industries, where there has been little real-wage growth.

Meanwhile, U.S. crop workers’ average age has risen to 38 years old, from 33 in 2000, according to federal data, making them less likely to seek out the most arduous jobs.

The article gives examples of companies paying $16-17/hour for field labor in Arizona and California, and still being unable to acquire enough labor to get their crops harvested.

So without a steady and reliable supply of desperate immigrants willing to pick their vegetables, these industrial operations are losing crops (and therefore revenue). And that situation isn’t likely to improve, as the average age of field workers continues to climb. The back of a 20 year old can handle bending over to pick strawberries all day much easier than the back of a 40 year old can (I can personally attest to that fact).

Commodity agriculture is becoming so automated and roboticized that it doesn’t have to depend upon much human labor. Not so with vegetable farming. At least for now, harvesting still requires manual human labor and there is increasingly less of that available.

So along with pollinator loss and drought, we can add “the labor crisis” to the list of things that are making industrial vegetable farming unsustainable.

Incidentally, according to the Vegetable Grower article, between April 2015 and April 2016 U.S. beekeepers lost 44% of their colonies, up 3.5% from the previous year.

Shifting gears now, for any who made it this far, I’ve added a link to our Instagram feed in the right hand column of the blog, for those folks who enjoy seeing pictures from our place. I got the idea from Melissa of Evergrowing Farm, whose excellent blog (HERE) also has a link to her equally excellent Instagram Feed.

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23 comments on “Labor Crisis?

  1. Leigh says:

    Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that anything that gets too big eventually ends up with too many problems. I don’t think it was ever meant to be that way. To me, the biblical agrarian model puts people back on the land in farms manageable by the number of people who live there.

    Some things, such as agriculture and education, simply cannot be industrialized, although I somehow doubt the industrialists will ever figure that out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Well said Leigh. It’s one thing to hire local kids to help with the harvest. That, it seems to me, is good for all involved and is entirely sustainable. It’s another thing altogether to become dependent upon labor from thousands of miles away–people who will only take the jobs out of desperation and would prefer to be home working on their own farms.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. thesnowwoman says:

    Wow, and so many people jobless! And I would think high school students would jump at the chance for money. Spending money, college fund, savings, car so many things they want or need. What a shame that the food gets lost/wasted and that no one wants to or can work.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      When I was growing up here just about every kid I knew worked on farms during the summer. In the case of me and my brother and sisters we were expected to earn the money to buy all of our own school clothes and school books from a very early age. Later we were expected to earn enough money to pay for our cars, gas and insurance. For farm work we were paid less than the minimum wage. But now these farms can’t even get 100 people to come pick their strawberries, for any amount. And it’s been decades since I’ve seen any local kids working on the tobacco farms here. Now all the work is done by seasonal immigrant labor. And with that labor source drying up, it seems there aren’t going to be enough people to pick the crops. It does seem crazy.

      Like

      • Robert Taylor says:

        “Everyone” goes to college now. Too much cheap/easy/free money sloshing around along with the message that “you have to have a college degree” make it just about impossible for a teenager to choose otherwise. While I did go to college myself, I was also one of those kids who did farm work in the summer (and, in fact, during the school-year, too, when work was available), but I think alot of todays teens are being told (or otherwise come to believe) that such labor is somehow “below” them. Absolutely nothing wrong with an honest day’s physical labor, nor with making your living that way.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, our culture has made it too easy not to work. How many of those people in our country that don’t want to work or can’t work are going without a cell phone, cable TV, food, or even a car and all expense of that. I would say not many. I’m not against helping when life throws some terrible things at a person but to have a lifestyle of government hand outs is destroying our way of life.

    I agree with Leigh. The bigger the business the more it depends on the labor force. Especially, those that require an actual labor force. I don’t know how we can back down from the food sources that we have to the local level again. Folks are so ingrained to just go to the store and there is food when ever they want it. I run into that when I’m giving away garden produce. Folks are so used to having it their way that they think that’s how it is in a garden as well. When sweet corn or green beans start coming in they will get a few then a month later want more. There’s a puzzled look on there face when I inform them that they are done and I pulled the plants up. A garden is not the same as a grocery store but the mentality seems to be just that in the younger generation. The connection to how long it takes for vegetables to grow is being lost by the grocery store generation. It’s sad to see that happen and I don’t know what the future holds for those younger kids. Bill, I know you have faith that they will figure it out and I truly hope you’re right.

    Have a great labor force of one day on White Flint Farm.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      We’re becoming so disconnected from true food production that people don’t even know what food is in season. In Nebraska! And here too. We get people all the time coming by our booth and asking for tomatoes or corn in April or asparagus in August.

      When I read this article I thought of some of our earlier discussions about automation and robotics. I imagine it’s possible to harvest thousands of acres of corn, wheat or soybeans now with hardly any human labor at all. But they still need humans to pick strawberries and tomatoes. And when humans won’t do that anymore, then what do they do?

      By the way, I thought of you when I heard about this. Coming soon to a garden near you: the FarmBot. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r0CiLBM1o8

      Like

      • NebraskaDave says:

        Bill, you made me belly laugh. Robotic gardens at a cost of only $3275. I wonder if they can teach it to pick strawberries and tomatoes? I’m waiting for the robotic humanoid that can use a shovel to dig and robotic arms to weed. It’s closer than we think. I won’t see it in my life time but my grandson might. We have gone from tube radios to hand held devices that can communicate around the world in my life time. What technology will his 80 years of life bring? Thanks for making my day.

        Have a great Farmbot day.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Joanna says:

      I don’t agree that people always want something for nothing or are only prepared to take government handouts. How many of them are actually physically fit enough to do the hard work required, after eating the trash available to them in the supermarkets? How many of them would also tolerate the working conditions? Not many! Quite right too. At least big-ag is finding out the hard way that you have to at least provide good living and working conditions.

      Another problem with people working in agriculture is that it is seasonal. It is difficult to be on government handouts and then spend a period of time working then going back on benefits when the amount of money accrued is not enough to see you through the year. The hassle of reapplying for the handouts is very stressful and unhelpful, you can’t just dip in and out of it so easily.

      Liked by 1 person

      • NebraskaDave says:

        Joanna, good point. I agree it’s difficult to stay in good health by living on supermarket and fast food. My grandson, who lives with me, has difficulties with hard physical labor. When I tried to teach him to mow the lawn this year, he broke out in a rash because of the heat. Yes, there are those that can’t do physical labor but I’m not talking about those folks. In the USA there is a sub culture that is a significant part of the population that could physically work for a living but don’t. They learned how to work the system and have become dependent on the government. Some have passed on what they have learned to the second and third generations. I’m not against helping those that need help but it’s gotten out of control here in the USA.

        We here in the USA have unemployment that covers the seasonal employment issues. Our current president increased the length of unemployment to 99 weeks. So a person can be on unemployment for almost two years before finding another job. In my area there are lots of jobs but they are not career jobs that will support a family and with the current government policies in place have become part time jobs instead of full time.

        My country is in a state of change and only time will tell if it’s for the better or the worse.

        Have a great Latvia day.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joanna says:

        I hear what you are saying and I know of the kind of people you refer to, as there is something similar in the UK and Latvia. Having said that it is easy to scapegoat those kind of people instead of looking at the structural issues of why they choose that kind of lifestyle, if choice was the right word. Their choices are often limited, both in opportunity and education. We can find those who have bucked the trend and hold them up as examples to batter the others over the head with, but that doesn’t help much.

        Often these people have been born in areas where heavy industry or at least single large employers were the main employer until they were made redundant. I remember huge numbers of steel workers, miners and shipbuilders in the UK all mainly in the north of England, losing their jobs and their reason for getting one as their well paid and well respected jobs were eroded and in their place were jobs stacking shelves in supermarkets. There were then told to become entrepreneurial to get themselves out of the hole – not easy after doing as you are told for countless years. I suppose I should stop there as this post is quite long enough 🙂

        Like

      • Joanna says:

        I thought of you today when I read an article on the inevitability of low employment and therefore the need to redistribute income through a guaranteed minimum basic income for everyone. I would imagine that would be a hard pill to swallow in the US 🙂
        http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2988051/to_deliver_sustainable_development_first_give_up_on_growth.html

        Liked by 1 person

  4. allisonmohr says:

    With urban density increasing, and people living in apartments, what’s the alternative to industrial vegetable farming? Not everybody has a back yard they can dig up and use for raised beds. Not to mention that they already have jobs that suck the life out of their souls. Now they must also grow their own food? I looked up the bracero program on wikipedia, which ended in 1964,and was appalled to read how badly the guest workers were treated. Perhaps if the US government could get their heads pointed forward and implement a well ordered and fair guest worker program, this issue could be fixed to a degree. Not having a family farm to which I can retreat, I’m dependent upon the grocery store for food.

    On another subject, is that deer still hanging out with the goats, or did he/she move on?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Starting with the easy question first, the deer finally decided to leave the goats and take up life with other deer. I have a neighbor who recognizes him and has seen him running with another buck. Maybe he’ll wise up and get back in the pasture when hunting season arrives. 🙂

      Figuring out how to produce food sustainably might not be easy, but it seems like it might be necessary. If industrialized vegetable farms deplete the water table in California, or if they kill off the pollinators, or if they can’t find enough people willing to work on them, then they won’t be able to produce food for anyone. I think it’s unwise and dangerous to concentrate our food production into such a small area and in such an unnatural way. If California become unable to continue producing so much of our food, we’re going need a plan B. I’d prefer the model that we’ve always used before we started industrializing food production and concentrating into a few small areas, so that most of the food produced for cities would come from the farms and rural communities surrounding that city. There are lots of advantages to that model, including being less dependent on long-distance transportation and all the problems that come with that. There is also some impressive work being done now on sustainable urban food production. When the Soviet Union fell and Cuba suddenly had to produce it’s own food, for example, they took up urban farming and now Havana produces 90% of it’s own food. WWII Victory Gardens are another example. Maybe the industrial food system will solve its labor crisis and avoid collapsing due to the other challenges it faces. But maximizing local food production would seem to be a prudent thing to do.

      Changing the subject, we’re leaving for Paris on Sunday. 🙂

      Like

      • Paris? NICE!; )
        “Bigger is better”? Once again, no way!
        Growing food in a dessert with irrigation? Oxymoron.
        If you can’t grow your own, you should be able to afford to buy from the market *affordably (big discussions about that this year here, with the drought and “price gouging” going on):): so yes, be able to buy food in season from the market and put it by for the winter – another lost art. But, the good news is, canning and other sorts of food preservation are definitely making a come-back in this neck of the woods; )

        Like

  5. Will be back – no time right now – but here’s some food for thought…
    The rules up here: http://www.esdc.gc.ca/en/foreign_workers/hire/agricultural/index.page

    Like

    • Bill says:

      We have lots of seasonal immigrant labor here, via Guest-worker ag labor visas. In this part of the world we pride ourselves on our work ethic, but I’ve never seen anyone work harder than these men. They’re always in the field before sunup and they work until long after dark. Usually 7 days a week and it’s very physically demanding work. Having had a job that kept me away from my family for days at a time, I especially sympathize with them for that reason. They don’t see their homes or families for 6 months. These workers have nothing but my admiration and respect.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Couldn’t agree more for the exact same reasons (and totally about the picking strawberries thing you mentioned in the post… ). Anyone who thinks these jobs are easy, haven’t “been there” to “done that”. Kids are built closer to the ground for a reason; )

        Like

  6. avwalters says:

    We did ag work as kids. It was backbreaking–but we were happy for the pay. At over $11.00 per hour, I’m surprised that they cannot find Americans to do the work. It may be a shortage of younger people generally. I can say that I wouldn’t do it again–even if I were younger, unless it was on an organic farm. Farmworkers on conventional farms suffer terribly from exposure to the various herbicides and pesticides. I’m not willing to be poisoned at any wage.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      There’s no telling how much poison I breathed or absorbed in my skin growing up working in tobacco. We sprayed it by hand, without any protective gear at all. Sometimes I see the Mexican crews that work here now wearing protective gear, but most times they aren’t. It really is dangerous work. Yet we want our cheap food so we just outsource that to people who are either desperate enough or uninformed enough to do it. I recall something BeeHappee wrote earlier this year. She was discussing the importance of local sustainable food systems with someone and he he laughed it off and said, “That’s what Mexicans are for.” His comment was shameful, but our entire society essentially says the same thing in how we make our food choices.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. There’s one other thing: when I was a kid at least, farm kids have pretty much always done what you did: grew up there and couldn’t wait to get away and then usually wind up coming back when they’ve gotten sick of the world; but these days there are a lot less of them and they don’t necessarily come home again… (Maybe there’s just too much time in machines and not enough spent with your hands in the soil? ):

    Like

    • Bill says:

      That’s an excellent point. As soon as I turned 16 and could drive to town to a job I did it. And as soon as I could move away for good I did that too. Sadly, our community (like most rural communities I imagine) suffers from “brain drain.” Most of the brightest young people leave here (and never return). That creates something of a downward spiral in the economy. I believe there is reason to think that is changing now. Hopefully it won’t take a disaster like the Great Depression to encourage people to return to the farms. The percentage of people living in rural areas in the US is now lower than it’s ever been and continues to fall. The only time rural populations increased in the last 150 years was during the Great Depression when all the city jobs suddenly went away and people returned to farms to live off the land.

      Liked by 1 person

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