CFBF survey: Lack of employees hampers farms across the state


Issue Date: October 18, 2017
By Dave Kranz

Across California, farmers and ranchers face chronic problems in finding and hiring qualified and willing people to work in agriculture, according to a survey conducted by the California Farm Bureau Federation.

The informal survey of Farm Bureau members showed that more than half of responding farmers had experienced employee shortages during the past year. The figure was higher among farmers who need to hire employees on a seasonal basis—69 percent of those farmers reported experiencing shortages. The results are similar to those from a survey CFBF conducted in 2012.

"Despite all the efforts California farmers and ranchers have made to find and hire people to work on their operations, they still can't find enough qualified and willing employees," CFBF President Paul Wenger said. "Farmers have offered higher wages, benefits and more year-round jobs. They have tried to mechanize operations where possible, and have even changed crops or left ground idle. But employee shortages persist."

CFBF conducted the voluntary survey this summer, and more than 750 farmers and ranchers throughout California responded.

Participating farmers who reported shortages said they were experiencing shortages of up to 50 percent or more of their seasonal workforce needs, and the problems have been occurring from one end of California to the other.

In San Diego County, flower grower Mike Mellano said he finds fewer employees available, which presents challenges especially when peak hiring needs arise.

"When we need to scale up, it's almost impossible to scale up," Mellano said. "When there's not enough workers, productivity goes down, and that's a challenge that we've had."

In far Northern California, Scott Seus, who farms just a few miles from the Oregon border in Siskiyou County, reported "steady and increasing competition" for what's already "a minimal labor pool."

"Then we get into fall when everybody is competing for labor—strawberries, onions and potatoes," Seus said.

In the Central Valley, San Joaquin County winegrape grower Bruce Fry said he had typically hired a crew of 30 people to prune and tie grapevines.

"This year I had, at the high, maybe 14 or 15 people," Fry said, "so because of that, I can't get everything done that I need to get done in a timely manner."

When asked what actions they have taken in response to employee shortages, farmers who participated in the survey most frequently cited increased wages, benefits and additional incentives.

"You have to pay more to keep your crew," Seus said, adding about his employees, "These are people that their kids go to school with my kids. We're trying to take care of them the best we can."

Farmers also reported they had used, attempted or investigated mechanization; reduced cultivation activities such as pruning trees and vines; and either planted fewer acres or left some crops unharvested.

Grape grower Fry, who already harvests some of his crops mechanically, said he was investigating ways to perform other vineyard-management tasks mechanically, such as suckering vines in the spring. Pruning represents his highest employee cost, Fry said, with growers and wineries looking into trellis systems that require minimal pruning.

Flower grower Mellano said his crops require "a tremendous amount" of hand labor, but that he plans to travel to the Netherlands this fall to look into ways to mechanize.

Sara Neagu-Reed of the CFBF Federal Policy Department, who compiled the survey report, said that although the survey did not ask for information about the median age of current and available agricultural employees, comments from respondents indicated the workforce is aging.

"When we asked what sorts of new patterns agricultural employers are seeing among their employees, one-third of the participating farmers said their employees have been retiring or cutting back on their hours, due to their age," Neagu-Reed said.

Given the ongoing problems farmers reported, CFBF President Wenger said the survey results underline the need for action by Congress to improve the current agricultural immigration program.

"Only 3 percent of the farmers in our survey said they had used the existing H-2A agricultural immigration program," Wenger said. "Even though more farmers have tried it, H-2A remains too cumbersome for most."

For example, Mellano said the H-2A system "really doesn't work" for his operation.

"We do a lot of really small jobs, and H-2A is designed for a lot of people that do one big job," he said.

Wenger said farmers in California and elsewhere in the country "need an improved system to allow people to enter the U.S. legally to work on farms and ranches."

Farmers have been forthright about their reliance on a largely immigrant workforce, he said, noting that efforts to hire U.S.-born employees on farms have remained unsuccessful. He said CFBF will continue to oppose mandatory use of the E-Verify electronic employment-eligibility system until Congress creates a satisfactory immigration system for agriculture.

Wenger said Farm Bureau and other organizations would continue to work with Congress to create "a secure, flexible, market-based agricultural immigration program."

The full report on the CFBF survey, titled "Searching for Solutions: California Farmers Continue to Struggle with Employee Shortages," may be found online.

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at dkranz@cfbf.com. Assistant editor Christine Souza contributed to this story.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.