Halfway through a long day of driving, I pulled off the interstate and into a Wendy’s parking lot. I didn’t plan to take the time to sit down and eat my value menu feast, but since the drive-thru line was pretty long, I parked and walked to the front door.
Taped to the door, a sheet of white printer paper informed me, in a no-frills font, that: “Due to an employee shortage, our dining room is currently closed. We apologize for any inconvenience. Thank you for your patronage.”
After taking a beat or two to process the information, I got back in my car, waited in the drive-thru line, got my lunch, and steered back onto the interstate, wondering again at the phenomenon of America’s current labor shortage. Blame it on what you will, it’s tough to find an industry that hasn’t been affected by a lack of willing and capable employees. And this has been made particularly evident in the world of agriculture.
Higher Wages, Fewer Workers
Talk to anybody running a farm or ranch in the United States right now, and odds are they’ll tell you how challenging it is to find and hire reliable workers. Even once you manage to find someone who’s a good fit, that help comes at a steeper cost than ever before. Data gathered by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) in its most recent Farm Labor Survey shows that wages for non-supervisory ag workers rose at an average of 1.2 percent annually from 1990 to 2021. Over the past five years, however, wages increased by 2.5 percent per year.
According to the NASS report released May 24, 2023, American farm operators paid their hired workers an average wage of $18.08 per hour during the April 2023 reference week – up 5 percent from the same period in 2022. Field workers earned an average of $17.26 per hour, up 5 percent. Livestock workers made $16.48 per hour, up 4 percent.
All those numbers back up the anecdotal evidence from growers that farm workers are getting harder and harder to find and hire.
It’s difficult to deal with securing labor. With the minimum wage increases in the United States in recent years, more people have decided to leave skilled labor positions for less physically demanding work. It has shrunk the talent pool for farming operations to hire from.
Farmers Worry About Labor
It’s no secret that the U.S. provides the most efficient and stable food supply on the world market. But with skilled labor growing ever harder to come by, American producers often wonder how they’re going to keep the pipeline filled.
“It’s difficult to deal with securing labor,” says Brad Stinson, desert operations manager for Duda Farm Fresh Foods, a company with fruit and vegetable production and shipping operations in Florida, California, Arizona, Michigan and Georgia. “With the minimum wage increases in the United States in recent years, more people have decided to leave skilled labor positions for less physically demanding work. It has shrunk the talent pool for farming operations to hire from.”
H-2A Strengthens Labor Force
One very important tool in keeping up a strong ag labor force for Duda, Stinson says, is the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program, often called the H-2A visa program. The H-2A program provides a legal means for agricultural employers to bring foreign-born workers to the U.S. to perform seasonal farm labor. H-2A visas are issued on a temporary basis, for a period of up to 10 months.
While crop farmers can use this program to meet their seasonal labor needs, most livestock producers are not allowed to use the program to meet year-round labor needs. There is, however, an exception made to this restriction for producers of range-grazing livestock, who are allowed to employ H-2A workers year-round. The U.S. Department of Labor’s H-2A website offers guidance for employers in getting started in the H-2A program and finding qualified H-2A workers.
The increased utilization of the H-2A program over the years is one of the most obvious illustrations of a scarcity of farm labor. The number of H-2A positions requested and approved has ballooned more than sevenfold over the past 17 years. According to data from the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), just over 48,000 H-2A applications were approved in fiscal year 2005, and some 371,000 were granted in fiscal 2022. The average H-2A certification issued in 2022 lasted 5.65 months, implying that the aforementioned 371,000 positions equated to around 175,000 full-year jobs.
“The main benefit of H-2A lies in the core of the program,” says Stinson. “And that is simply being able to secure qualified laborers to ensure a timely and professional harvest. We have some crews with foremen and harvesters who have been working with us through the H-2A program for over 15 years. Like any business relationship, if there is a mutual respect between employees and management, it is much easier to succeed. We’ve been able to find those relationships.”
Getting Started With H-2A
To qualify for the H-2A program, employers must demonstrate that their honest efforts to recruit American workers yielded no fruit. They are also required to pay a state-specific minimum wage, which must be at least the average wage paid to crop and livestock workers surveyed in the Farm Labor Survey in that region the year prior. This figure is known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR). Additionally, employers are required to provide housing for their H-2A workers and cover their domestic and international transportation.
“With the H-2A program, you can employ and train a crew for a season, and as long as they prove to be dependable workers, you can rehire them each year,” says Stinson. “It allows you to invest your time and knowledge into those people the same as any other job. The only difference is that they require a special visa. It’s actually slightly more expensive in some cases to employ H-2A workers, but the benefit outweighs the cost.”
H-2A Not Without Challenges
Stinson says most of his company’s challenges with the H-2A program fall under the umbrella of logistics. For example, H-2A employees are only allowed to work in a pre-designated state or county during the time of their employment. If an opportunity arises unexpectedly in a region not listed on their H-2A documentation, those workers and employers are not allowed under the law to move their operations.
“We are required to submit those H-2A forms 90 days in advance,” says Stinson. “That requires a lot of planning. Another logistical challenge is securing housing and meals for H-2A laborers, which is mandatory. If a company employing these workers has not built its own housing facility, it would have to coordinate with a local hotel or make some other arrangements to ensure the workers have appropriate housing.”
When all is said and done, though, employing H-2A workers has been a major boon to many American agriculture businesses and to the industry as a whole. H-2A labor has kept the U.S. produce sector humming along despite the labor challenges facing much of the economy.
“You can find H-2A workers driving tractors and laying irrigation pipe, harvesting and packing crops in the field, packing value-added products in processing facilities, and everywhere in between,” says Stinson. “I only see the United States becoming more and more reliant on H-2A labor for agriculture as we continue to expand what it means to be a service economy. I have a tremendous amount of respect for people who choose to work and provide goods to people of another country while supporting their families across the border.”