Survey illustrates ongoing shortages of farm employees


Issue Date: May 1, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman

California farmers and ranchers still don't have enough people to do all the work, and nothing short of an act of Congress is likely to resolve the problem long term: That's the conclusion of survey results released this week by the California Farm Bureau Federation.

The anonymous, voluntary survey, conducted earlier this year in collaboration with the University of California, Davis, found that 56% of respondents weren't able to hire enough people as they needed at some point during the previous five years. Of the farmers reporting employee shortages, the survey indicated worsening problems the past two years, with 70% saying they had more trouble hiring people in 2017 and 2018.

It's not for a lack of trying, CFBF President Jamie Johansson said.

"The survey shows farmers have tried and are trying all the tactics available to them, such as increased wages, changes in farming and cropping patterns, use of the existing H-2A visa program and automation where appropriate," Johansson said. "The missing element is an improved agricultural immigration system, to match willing employees with farm employers."

Farmers responding to the survey spoke of a multitude of problems caused by the shortages, from abandoning crops in the field for want of harvest crews to leaving fields and orchards unplanted altogether. More than a third—37%—said they'd delayed or reduced weeding and pruning, or otherwise adjusted cultivation practices.

Others are switching crops or mechanizing where possible.

The survey found that 56% of respondents have started using mechanization, with more than half of those saying they did so due to employee shortages.

About 31% of farmers changed the acreage of their primary crop, with about half of those decreasing such acreage. Of farmers who reported switching crops, most chose less labor-intensive alternatives such as tree nuts (39%) or field crops such as corn or cotton (14%).

The top response to ongoing employee shortages was to raise wages. The great majority of California farmers responding to the survey—86%—said they had raised wages in efforts to hire enough people. Of those who reported raising wages, responses showed that has become more widespread in recent years.

Colby Pereira, a farm manager who serves as president of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, said that in addition to wage and benefit boosts, the shortages have spurred "substantial investment" into research and development of advanced technology.

"While there are just some on-farm jobs that require a human touch and cannot be replaced by machines, technology can undoubtedly help fill some of the gaps created from the labor shortage," Pereira said.

In addition, more farmers are turning to farm labor contractors to help them fill the ranks. The survey showed 61% of farmers have retained a farm labor contractor within the past five years, with the main motivation being to ensure there were enough people to do the work.

Others mentioned difficulties with H-2A, including a lack of housing in some areas. Farmers who bring in people on H-2A visas must supply housing at no cost to the employees. Although there is heightened interest in the program, only 6% of surveyed farmers said they actually enrolled in it.

"Through the years, the H-2A program has proven inadequate for farms in California and across the nation," Johansson said. "Farm Bureau will continue to work with Congress to create a secure, flexible, market-based immigration program that works better for both farmers and farm employees."

Pereira said the solution must be comprehensive.

"Any type of action by Congress must respect the importance of agriculture's experienced workforce, all while including a flexible and efficient ag worker visa program," Pereira said. "We need to take care of individuals who are already here and provide for future flow. The diversity of agriculture makes it clear that any real, meaningful reform will need to be equally diverse in possibilities towards meeting both current and projected labor needs."

Johansson said key elements of an improved agricultural visa program would include streamlining H-2A and modifying it so employees who hold visas can move among registered employers at will. He said immigration reform must also provide earned legal status for current California agricultural employees.

One anonymous survey participant described the additional stress employee shortages bring to family farmers and ranchers.

"Farming has become so difficult for smaller and entry farmers in California that my children see the problems, hard work and low profitability (and) they do not want to take over the farm as I had originally hoped and planned," the farmer wrote.

A total of 1,071 farmers and ranchers responded to the survey.

In terms of the proportion of farmers reporting employee shortages, the 2019 results are similar to a CFBF survey in 2017, which showed 55% of farmers experiencing shortages.

A full survey report is available on the CFBF website at www.cfbf.com/2019survey.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

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