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Commentary: Farm labor survey can gather stories, impact policy

Issue Date: April 20, 2022
By Matthew Viohl
Matthew Viohl
California agriculture relies on a critical workforce. California Farm Bureau, in partnership with the University of California, is surveying members to gauge the extent and impact of labor challenges.
Photo/Lori Eanes

From the Industrial Revolution to the Great Recession, labor markets and the nature of employment itself have been greatly altered during periods of both historical growth and stagnation. In early 2020, the world experienced a similar era-defining event with the onset of the pandemic. More than two years later, much of the globe is still trying to recover from the significant setbacks, and the challenges endure.

While business closures and millions in lost jobs remain as some of the more readily identifiable economic impacts from the pandemic, less obvious outcomes affect industries of all types. For instance, more and more companies are finding it harder to retain workers without offering flexible work-from-home policies for traditional office jobs. In what some have coined the "Great Resignation," millions of employees in the U.S. changed their careers or left the workforce altogether.

For the agricultural industry, serious labor and workforce challenges existed well before the pandemic. Although most farmers and ranchers were able to avoid business lockdowns due to their critical importance to the U.S. and world food supply chains, agriculture's hiring and retention issues became even more exacerbated due to COVID-19. From visa issues for foreign workers to the inability to find domestic workers, farm producers were often stretched to their limits trying to make do with a limited available workforce.

From fruits and vegetables to poultry and dairy farms, our agricultural sector remains distinctly labor-intensive. With roughly one-third of the country's farm and ranch employees working here in California, we understand all too well their importance to securing our nation's food supply. Farming and ranching still relies on these critical workers despite technological improvements and better working practices.

It is important to gather and tell the stories of the real-life experiences and observations of farms and ranches. To do this, the California Farm Bureau is partnering with the University of California on a survey meant to examine agricultural labor impacts.

The survey, made available for farmers and ranchers across California, poses a litany of questions on issues ranging from worker availability during the pandemic to the potential reliance on mechanization due to a lack of available workers.

The information ultimately gleaned from the survey, available at surveymonkey.com /r/CAFarmLaborSurvey2022, may be shared with lawmakers and agency officials to influence critical agricultural workforce policy decisions both in California and Washington, D.C.

Farm Bureau and its partners are seeking to understand the degree to which farmers and ranchers experienced these labor challenges. We also want to know the strategies and practices they adopted in hopes of overcoming them and what efforts showed success.

Labor costs have continued to be a key concern among agricultural producers for many years. Add to that surging inflation and farm input costs, plus historic stresses experienced during the pandemic. The pain for farmers and ranchers seems more acute than ever.

This survey, which remains open for participation through April, will help reveal a clearer picture of these experiences, as results, data and key takeaways are published in the following weeks and months.

In a data-driven world, the survey results will be instrumental in helping show government officials the very real economic obstacles farmers and ranchers are attempting to overcome. Presented with first-hand stories and experiences by farmers, ranchers and agricultural employees, lawmakers and regulators will be better equipped to address these challenges with concrete solutions.

Recently, a California Farm Bureau team had the opportunity to tour a Sacramento Valley poultry farm. The family-owned farm has been in operation for well more than 150 years, raising livestock and producing a variety of commodities. Despite its lengthy history, the owner has faced significant workforce issues that have plagued operations in recent years.

From a lack of appropriately trained workers to days when no crews are available at all, the farm is challenged in maintaining its production flock of several thousand turkeys. Throw into the mix rising feed and fuel costs, and that makes for an increasingly less-sustainable industry.

We know that there are countless stories like this, not just in California, but in every state across the country. We expect this survey to serve as an important and helpful resource in our pursuit to share our farm and ranch stories with lawmakers and agency officials to inspire solutions that address the labor obstacles that our vital agricultural communities continue to face.

(Matthew Viohl is associate director of federal policy for the California Farm Bureau. He may be contacted at mviohl@cfbf.com.)

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




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