Find out how the U.S. farm labor shortage is impacting our nation’s farmers.

It’s no secret that farming is typically more than a one-person job, especially on large-scale operations with several moving parts. As a result, many farmers rely on hired agricultural workers or farm hands – but some are finding it more challenging to find reliable employees due to a widespread farm labor shortage.

Farm Labor Shortage in the U.S.

There are many types of farm workers – part-time, full-time, and/or seasonal – and they can fulfill many types of jobs on a farm, from working in fields to caring for livestock to maintaining machinery. Many of these jobs require little to no education, but according to Successful Farming, “given the changing nature of the workforce, it’s harder to find local people who want to do farm work” because “traditional farm laborers like Hispanics are moving on to higher paid jobs in other industries” and “Mexican workers are finding new opportunities at home or often are restricted by immigration policies.”

In addition, Successful Farming reports that many farm workers are not legally employed in the U.S., citing the National Agricultural Workers Survey’s indication that nearly half of all farm workers are not authorized to work in the country. Plus, farmers are reporting that work permits for laborers aren’t getting renewed, and the influx of new farm workers is slowing down.

The result? According to Miranda Driver of CalAgJobs, an organization that works to connect farm businesses with employees, there are two jobs available in agriculture for every job seeker across the nation, and in California, there are four jobs open for every applicant. This means that some farmers, particularly those who rely on farm hands during harvest time, are losing crops and income because they can’t keep up with the workload. If this problem continues, it could drive the affected farmers to scale back production or get out of farming entirely.

Solutions to Combat Lack of Farm Workers

Specialty crop growers and those who own major farming operations are feeling the effects of the U.S. farm labor shortage in a big way, along with owners of moderate-size farms in the Midwest, and they’re looking for smart solutions.

While some farmers are employing their laborers year-round (even if they don’t need year-round help) in an effort to keep them, others are offering good benefits and “using equity in the operation as a way to motivate the best employees to stay and help build the business,” says Joe Horner, a University of Missouri ag economist whose expertise includes farm labor management.

Many farmers are also relying on advanced technology to fill the gaps in hired agricultural workers. For example, in the West and Southeast – where the most specialty crops are produced – growers are using mechanical systems to replace workers. Driscoll’s, a berry-growing operation in California, is developing a robotic machine to pick strawberries. In Alabama, Sirmon Farms, which grows sweet potatoes, corn, cotton, peanuts, and hydroponic lettuces, has found that auto-steer systems can reduce the need for farm workers. A farm in North Dakota uses precision ag and no-till farming techniques to run his operation with less hired labor.

In addition to technological advancements and changing farm employment practices, we need to address immigration reform and the guest worker program. The current H-2A program simply isn’t meeting the labor needs of America’s farms. “We’re coming to a point where America will have to decide if we’re going to import workers or import our food” says Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau.

The American Farm Bureau is lobbying for reform of the guest worker program to help combat the worker shortage that directly impacts the sustainability of U.S. agriculture. In short, “farmers need a guest worker program that meets both their needs and farm workers’ needs, and brings stability to our food system” notes Duvall.

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