Jul 31, 2018
Great Lakes EXPO speakers to cover labor environment

It isn’t news to growers that the agri-labor market is a challenge. The shortage in able-bodied workers and difficulty filling H-2A visas, plus the added financial burdens included in requirements for utilizing H-2A workers, makes it difficult for farm operators to fill their workforce. At this year’s Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO, several sessions will focus on the agri-labor market.

VGN spoke with a few of the scheduled speakers. Here’s a preview of what you can expect from those sessions.

Congress is working on some solutions to the H-2A visa troubles many growers face. The proposed H-2C visa would be capped at 410,000 workers (out of an estimated need of 2.5 million-2.7 million) but could possibly eliminate H-2A visas altogether.

The National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE) is lobbying hard to prevent a labor shortfall catastrophe that could occur if H-2A is eliminated in favor of the capped H-2C.

“We have seen a significant increase in total number of employers using H-2A visas,” said Michael Marsh, CEO of NCAE. “Sixteen percent year-over-year were certified this last season. And over five years, we have seen the same level of growth.”

At this rate, Marsh said, if growers are forced to move to the H-2C visas and contend with the staffing needs of dairy farmers, greenhouses and other industries as well, it will be a major challenge to get crops harvested.

If H-2A continues to be used, NCAE hopes to have the process streamlined so farmers do not need to have such extraordinary costs and so that it is more user-friendly.

Youth labor could be another solution. In many states, the minor children of growers are allowed to work on their own family farms, but other minors are generally not able to do farm or greenhouse work. The labor force would be part-time and would be outside of school hours, but it could help fill a gap.

Growers are also seeing a great deal of worker absenteeism. Since H-2A manpower is only allowed if domestic workers are not found, worker absenteeism many proprietors see in domestic workers could be offset by hiring teenagers to work in the afternoons or evenings. It is also difficult to promote a seasonal job to domestic workers who need to feed their families year-round.

Even if domestic employees can fill the positions, growers need to be prepared for those employees to find work elsewhere at any moment.

Adam Kantrovich of Clemson Extension in Agribusiness, said: “While it is one thing to look at historical data and another to speculate what will happen in the future, I think we can expect more movement toward increasing the need for H-2A or similar visas.”

Human trafficking has been an increasing issue in the nation. Farmers can find themselves on the front lines defending against it. Jeremy Norwood, an expert in the prevention of human trafficking, will speak on ways farmers can help in this process.

On the horizon is the potential for automation to positively impact the labor shortages growers are facing. Whether this is automated planting or harvesting, the machines will need to be designed virtually on a per-crop basis. For example, tough-skinned apples may need to be pulled and put in a box, but other varieties with thinner skin require stem cutting to prevent damage to other apples in the container.

Kantrovich said, “One of the difficulties is that a machine has to determine that a crop or product is ready for picking; can it decipher if a cherry is ready or if it needs a few days?” The risk is that a machine will not have the ability to make the type of decision a human can, and this could cause culling of a crop.

“Automation will impact the agri-labor market, but it will take time,” Marsh said. “In the winegrape industry in California, it is very easy to use the mechanical harvester. However, once you get to Sonoma or Napa, they require hand labor to harvest grapes. But if we can’t hire labor, then mechanical will come into play.”

As of now, the capital required for moving toward automation is out of reach for most small- and medium-size operations. Automation is available and prices are going to decrease the longer the technology is on the market. Growers can look forward to this as an option in coming years.

Learn more at the upcoming Great Lakes EXPO educational sessions. Registration will open in late September. Visit www.GLEXPO.com.
— Jess Schmidt, Contributing Writer

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