Navigate the Ag Labor Squeeze: Expert Tips You Need to Know

As many states ease COVID-19 lockdowns, it’s clear the pandemic will continue to impact agriculture in complex ways. But opinions vary about what ag labor will look like in years to come. In the second roundtable in our series featuring tips to help farmers navigate 2020 and its associated challenges, moderator Vance Crowe once again asked panelists for one thing they believe that no one agrees with them on.

Panelist Michael Marsh, President and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE), said that he believes COVID-19 has created a perfect storm to bring additional mechanization into ag labor and that farmers need to continue to evaluate the breakeven costs between people vs. machines.

However, panelist Kathy Peterson, Founder of PeopleWorks and fifth-generation Iowa farmer, had a different take and shared that she believes farms that pay higher wages often have to do so because they’re terrible places to work.

Both experts provided a wide range of additional insights on labor retention and the latest on the H-2A program, and roundtable participants had plenty of questions of their own. As promised, we asked our panelists to address some of those questions after the broadcast.

Q: Relative to the non-farm sector, how important are supplemental wage benefits like health insurance to farm labor?

Michael and Kathy agreed that it depends on the labor force you employ. Michael believes it comes down to differences in what your full-time and part-time labor force expects, while Kathy shared that “In the end, you need to know what’s important to your people. If benefits like health insurance or retirement are important to a team member, you need to find ways to provide it.”

Q: If an operation is looking to hire or train up someone who will be involved in the business or management aspects of the farm, what is your advice?

Kathy affirmed that attracting a business-minded worker requires a business-minded approach. She offered a few sample interview questions to help assess if someone is business-minded and has farm manager potential:

  • If given a list of tasks for the day, how would you go about figuring out what to do first?
  • Tell me about a time you were asked to perform a task outside your comfort zone. What did you do? How did it go? What did you learn?
  • What is your definition of a good farm manager?
  • What would you most like to learn here that would help you in the future?
  • If you had to pick your ideal role here on the farm, what would it be?

Q: Do you believe that the only way to increase worker wages is to ask a higher price for food?

According to Michael, the answer is no, but he cautioned that we have to find ways to ensure that the American farmer is sustainable. As highlighted by the pandemic, without food security, there is no national security.

Q: To get good employees, you need…?

During the roundtable, Kathy highlighted the importance of things like paying a fair wage, open communication, and clearly defined expectations to maintain the morale of your workforce. For Michael, “A good operator has to be tough minded and good hearted. You have to make sure that things are getting done, but you also have to care about your employees.”

Q: When we talk about the need to support agriculture, are we implying that we need to focus on owners and not employees?

According to Michael, every farm operation is a job creator. “If you don’t have the farmer, you don’t have the worker. If you don’t have the capital, you don’t have the jobs.”

In general, our experts agreed that the most important thing farmers need to focus on with respect to labor in 2020 is keeping the employees you have. This was confirmed by participants. When asked whether they’ll try something new in 2020 with respect to labor, roundtable participants were fairly evenly split between incentivizing and recognizing good work (38 percent) and evaluating strengths and cross-training as needed (35 percent). None of the participants will increase pay rates in 2020.

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