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Farm Worker Trends

The shortage of farm labor is creating changes in our fresh food supply and what employers are doing to attract workers.

Steven Zahniser is an economist at the USDA and tracking these trends. He says the amount of imported fruits and vegetables to the United States has nearly doubled since 2008. In the meantime, the mix of crops in the U.S. horticultural sector is changing.

"Over the past decade we’ve seen rising production in sweet potatoes, apples, almonds, tangerines, and tangelos, also strawberries, and declining production of lettuce, potatoes, oranges, onions and tomatoes," says Zahniser. "We are starting to explore this question in greater detail, but it seems that there’s sort of a pivot going on away from some labor-intensive crops to less labor-intensive crops."

Zahniser says there are efforts to make farm labor less demanding, so a larger portion of the population could do farm work. This would include things like elevated harvest platforms which would save workers from having to climb up and down ladders.

Another trend they’re seeing is improving the conditions of farm workers.

"Providing benefits like health insurance to workers, and also training supervisors to do better at their jobs," he says. "A coalition of employers in the industry has crafted an ethical charter on responsible labor practices in the fresh produce and floral industries. The thinking there is by making certain that people are supervised well, more people will want to work in farm work."