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Help Wanted: How Farmers are Tackling a Labor Shortage

Finding good farm help has gotten tough, but farmers are discovering new ways to recruit and manage qualified employees.

John Jensen knows what it’s like to be the hired man. The central Iowa farmer grew up the son of a farm hand, and it wasn’t always an easy life. The family moved around a lot, often pulling up stakes in March, the end of an employee’s annual stint.

“For 18 years of my life, I was a hired man’s son, so I know what it looks like from that side,” he says.

“I saw the owner go to town on Saturday, while Dad and I might stay and shovel manure or something. So, I understand that man’s point of view.”

To get his own foothold in farming, Jensen has pulled hard on his boot straps, using a welder and a lot of sweat equity to build a large, diversified operation.

“I made all my own machinery for 20 years,” he says. (That includes piecing together some of the largest planters, tillage equipment and combines ever run in the Corn Belt.) Working with an equipment manufacturer, Jensen built the first 12-row and 16-row corn heads. He ran a 24-row planter in 1980, and a 16-row corn head in 2001. He’s operating even bigger equipment now, including a 54-row planter.

Jensen has created a successful, diversified operation, mixing custom farming with his own row crop production. The family also operates a custom wheat harvest business through the summer. Side businesses include sweet corn and pumpkins, as well as a custom metal fabrication setup.

For Jensen, the size and diversity of the operation demands he pay close attention to the labor part of the equation, which combines family--two sons and their spouses—a full-time hire, and part-time labor.

Jensen’s farm hand roots keep him mindful for the way he needs to manage his employees.

“The key is to treat everyone with respect,” he says. “It’s also important that everyone runs their own department of the operation. That way we don’t have everyone stumbling over each other.”

A high-tech operation like Jensen’s demands people with advanced skills, the sort of employees that are the hardest to attract and keep, farm labor experts say.

Aaron Schneckloth, a recent college graduate, was hired to bring some special tech skills to the operation, and has become integral to the farm’s continuing growth and success.

Schneckloth says he keeps busy “with anything and everything” on the farm, but was drawn to employment on the place by Jensen’s innovative approach to technology.

“If there’s a place that uses more technology, I don’t know where it would be,” he says. “They’re not afraid of trying something new.”

Beyond the opportunity of being able to run big equipment and experiment with new technology, there is another factor to Schneckloth’s fit on the farm. Jensen has given him good fringe benefits and a crop sharing stake on 200 acres.

“John is open to listening and has treated me well,” Schneckloth says. “He’s also been open to helping me start my own operation.”

Equity sharing isn’t a handout, though. “I don't want it to sound like John just ‘hands’ me acres, and then I call it my own,” Schneckloth says. “I have spent over 10 years working hard for what I've been able to get accomplished.”

From Jensen’s perspective, the former hired man’s son says: “I try to let him have a say in the operation.”

Finding and keeping good help like Schneckloth isn’t easy. Jensen was somewhat reluctant to be interviewed for this story, fearing that the publicity would draw attention to a valued employee.

Plenty of job openings

Jensen’s reluctance is understandable. Nationwide, there are two jobs available in agriculture for every new job seeker, says Miranda Driver of CalAgJobs, an organization that works to connect farm businesses with employees. In California, there are four jobs open for every applicant.

CalAgJobs deals mainly with agronomic positions. But the need for workers exists at all levels, she says.

“Everyone who talks with us says they can’t find people to work in the fields and orchards. Finding reliable labor has become very difficult,” Driver says.

Also, given the changing nature of the workforce, it’s harder to find local people who want to do farm work. Traditional farm laborers like Hispanics are moving on to higher paid jobs in other industries. Mexican workers are finding new opportunities at home or often are restricted by immigration policies.

Plus, the “elephant in the room” is that many farm workers are not legally employed in the U.S. More than half of all farm workers are unauthorized to work in the U.S., according to a National Agricultural Worker Survey.

Because of these issues, employee recruitment is a particularly tough issue for large livestock operations and specialty crop producers.

“U.S. agriculture is in desperate need of solutions to address labor shortages. It is particularly so for the labor-intensive specialty crop industry,” according to the authors of a recent article in Choices, an ag economics publication.

The largest 4% of U.S. farms account for 66% of total farm sales and employ 42% of hired farmworkers, according to USDA. Among the unauthorized workers, 90% were working in specialty crops.

 “Our biggest problem is we are having trouble finding good on-farm people,” Jimmy Pollock, production manager for J.C. Howard Farms in North Carolina told Successful Farming in the magazine’s most recent annual Pork Powerhouses report. “Work permits are not getting renewed, and the influx of new workers has slowed,” he said.  “A lot of workers are unsure and don’t know what to do.”

One Kansas feedlot operator told Bloomberg news last year, simply, “I need more Mexicans.”

But it’s not only the big operators and specialty crop growers who are struggling to find employees. The same is true for moderate-size operations in the Midwest, where many farmers may be looking for only seasonal part-time help or a full-time employee or two.

“The traditional way of reaching out in your neighborhood network to hire part-time, underemployed local neighbors with farm backgrounds, mechanical skills, and good animal instincts has become more challenging,” says Joe Horner, a University of Missouri ag economist, whose expertise includes farm labor management.

“Farmers needing to hire ‘unknown’ applicants find themselves needing to formalize the process more.  They are more concerned with screening (especially drug testing), training, labor law compliance, and correct termination,” Horner says.

Horner and fellow U. of Missouri ag economist Ryan Milhollin have developed a new guide for hiring and managing hired labor (see sidebar, page XX.)

Hiring a good farm hand and providing fair compensation can be a tricky process. Main goal, the Missouri experts say, is to make sure you don’t wind up paying more to hired help than you do to yourself.

“Total employment costs are more than wages,” Horner says. “Finding good workers, training them right, and keeping them satisfied so they can add value to the whole business is a critical issue.”

Can't keep up

Most US farms don’t need hired labor.  When they do, the reason is often because the family can no longer keep up with the workload. 

And sometimes fate steps into carefully laid plans; new circumstances drop from the sky.

In 2009, when Todd Cassebaum’s father passed away unexpectedly, one of the big questions facing the farm’s future was how to grow the operation without him. The farm had been handed down from Todd’s grandfather, who had settled in southern Alabama in the late 1920s. The hope was to expand the operation so son August could be part of its future.

August, Hope, and Todd Cassebaum
August, Hope, and Todd Cassebaum

“We had no hired labor until Dad passed away,” Cassebaum says. “That was a life-changing experience. It had been just me and my dad. We were able to do it ourselves.”

Todd’s spouse, Hope, is a major contributor to the operation, assisting with bookkeeping and other chores. If there were to be a next chapter in the farm’s history, though, hired labor would have to play a role, Todd realized.

The farm is complex and diversified. On about 1,200 acres, the family grows corn, oats, wheat, millet, peanuts, and cotton. It operates a 150-head cow-calf operation, divided into four herds, preconditioning weaned calves to 750 pounds. Much of the cropland is under irrigation, and it’s not uncommon for the family to grow as many as three crops in a field during the long Alabama growing season.

While many modern farmers are starting to recruit their employees like a professional human resource manager, some still manage the old-fashioned way--reaching out in the neighborhood to find people with farm backgrounds and mechanical and animal husbandry skills. The Cassebaums were able to hire these kinds of folks, Rick Fleming in 2009, and later a second employee, Ted Dennis.

“They were my friends before I hired them. They’re two good, qualified guys,” Cassebaum says. “Every morning, they’re here before I am.’

“There’s some farmers around here who would really like to find employees like them,” Cassebaum says.

Beyond the two full-time employees, Cassebaum hires students and others as seasonal labor for the farm’s vegetable stand, which operates from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Even with all the hired help, there’s a mountain of work that stretches available resources. “This place is go, go, go all the time. There is no down time here,” says Fleming.

“And that means everything: repairs, concrete, electrical, livestock, field work,” he says. “You blow something up, you gotta fix it.”

Temporary workers can work

For those who can’t find qualified local labor, the solution may be using the federal H-2A program, which enables farm employers to recruit foreign nationals to the United States for temporary work.

“We don’t have quite enough work to go through the trouble of using the H-2 program throughout the year,” says Hope Cassebaum. “We just can’t justify it, so that means working 12-13 hours a day when we have to.”

On the other side of Baldwin County, in Daphne, Alabama, Joel Sirmon does require using the temporary worker program. Sirmon, in a partnership with his brother James, grows cotton, peanuts and sweet potatoes on 4,000 acres. The sweet potatoes demand at least a hundred workers for planting and harvesting the crop. James employees another 10-12 workers year-around for the packing plant.

“Sweet potatoes are all hand labor,” Sirmon says. “They’re very labor intensive. But they go hand in hand with the cotton and peanuts, and they really help our bottom line.”

On top of four full-time employees, Sirmon also has a crew leader to manage the H-2A program, which takes a good deal of recruitment, communication across language barriers, and paperwork.

The program has worked well for the most part. “Most of the laborers are really good people. All they want to do is work.”

In the last several years, however, it has been increasingly difficult to recruit workers.

“Every year, it gets worse and worse. The last two years we have had trouble getting people across the border,” Sirmon says. “This year it took them an extra week to get into the country. But they came through right at the last minute.”

Sirmon hopes that immigration issues don’t continue to be played as a political football and hamper agriculture’s ability to recruit seasonal workers. 

“All the paperwork [for the H-2A program] is a pain,” says Sirmon. But it works and we are blessed for what we’ve got.”

For the farm labor shortage to be sorted out, a combination of forces will need to be brought into play, experts say. Immigration reform will have to be addressed at the national level. The temporary worker program needs to be simplified. More training is needed for workers.  And higher wages and better benefits may be needed for agriculture to compete with other industries for workers.

The American Farm Bureau Federation is lobbying for reform of the guest worker program, an “adjustment of status” for unauthorized workers, and a “market-based program” for seasonal and year-around workers.

“Increasing immigration enforcement without also reforming our worker visa program will cost America $60 billion in agricultural production,” the organization states on its farm labor policy web page.

However, these issues play out, farmers can take matters into their own hands in many cases, as the Jensen, Cassebaum and Sirmon farms have done

“Farmers are thinking outside the box for sure,” says Joe Horner. “More are willing to pay for employees year around, even if they don’t need them all year, just to keep good people.  Also, as farmers start hiring more skilled workers to operate more technical equipment and systems farmers seem to be more open than ever to using equity in the operation as a way to motivate the best employees to stay and help build the business.”

John Jensen’s hire of Aaron Schneckloth is that sort “outside the box” thinking: Hiring a skilled worker to help manage new technology has meant providing special motivation and incentives--good benefits, a say in the operation, and a chance for a young man to get his own stake in farming—and start a family. Schneckloth and his wife Julie were expecting their first child in December.

The payoff: “It’s nice to have someone here on the farm who knows more about technology than I do,” Jensen says.

Replacing labor with technology

All across the country, farms of all types and sizes are moving to replace labor with new technology. Over time, the result has mean fewer laborers—and higher wages.

In the Corn Belt, farmers continue to expand the size and automation of their equipment. In the West and Southeast, where the most specialty crops are produced, growers are looking to mechanical systems to replace workers who are harder and harder to find.

In California, Driscoll’s is working to develop a robotic machine to pick strawberries, a highly labor-intensive crop. Production of some of the 200 specialty crops in the state may be lost or reduced, though, because of the difficulty in mechanizing detailed hand labor.

In the South, the Joel Sirmon farm has found that auto-steer systems and other technology can hold down the need for more labor. “We have a young man from the Auburn tech lab as well as an 82-year-old employee using auto steer,” he says. “It takes a lot less stress on the diggin’ man. The 82-year-old using auto steer can dig peanuts all day.”

In North Dakota, Mark Rohrich manages to moonlight his farm work in large part because of his use of precision ag and no-till. Rohrich, who grows spring wheat, soybeans, corn and sunflower, says, “If we didn’t no-till farm we would not be able to cover the acres we do.  Bigger equipment and guidance put less stress on the operator.”

The trend to more technology is accelerating among farms of all types, say Joe Horner and Ryan MIlhollin, University of Missouri ag economists and ag labor experts.

“We’ve seen crop farmers invest in larger equipment and auto-steer technologies in order to cover more acres, faster, with fewer errors,” says Horner.  “We see dairy producers investing in robotic calf feeders and more are considering robotic milking systems.  Dairy producers are also investing in more heifer barns near the dairy facility to cut labor resources, manage heifers better, and reduce pasture land investment.”

Big hog operations are moving to electronic sow feeding because of a shortage of qualified labor.

The flip side of increased reliance on new technology is a need for skilled, trained workers to operate equipment. On the John Jensen farm in Iowa, employee Aaron Schneckloth was hired for his college degree in agricultural systems technology along with his good work ethic.

The match has been a good one. Jensen has an employee who is up to date on tech trends, and Schneckloth has found a tech-driven farm to launch his career.

But, at the end of the day, farm labor is never going to go away. Many agricultural jobs are always going to require a human touch. As Mark Rohrich says, “Technology sure helps, but the work still has to be done.”

New guide for farm labor management

A new publication will help farmers do a better job of hiring and keeping workers in a competitive labor environment, the authors say.

“Many farmers tell us their labor force is changing, becoming scarcer, and arriving with different expectations,” says co-author Joe Horner. “Our Missouri Farm Labor Guide is designed as a comprehensive labor resource for farmers who are hiring more employees and finding themselves competing against non-farm employers.”

The guide covers:

  • Recruitment
  • Hiring
  • On-boarding
  • Training and mentoring
  • Operations
  • Retention
  • Termination.

“By understanding these six steps, employers will establish a good approach to human resources management,” the authors say.

The Missouri Farm Labor Guide offers a downloadable, fillable employment application and hiring checklist. The guide also includes extensive lists of practical resources from other universities, government agencies and private sector sources, including Successful Farming.

It is available at:

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