July 19, 2018
Written By Callie Hanson
Finding Farmworkers is a Challenge
When Dannie Daughhetee reached out to his local unemployment office in West Memphis, Ark., last fall looking for help in filling four positions on his 5,000-acre rice, soybean, corn and cotton farm, he received 18 applications. Only four people bothered to show up to the farm for an interview, and Daughhetee’s options dwindled further when one applicant failed a drug test, and another left after a mere three hours of labor. The two remaining individuals put in ten days of work before they quit.
Despite living in Procter, Ark., a 30-minute drive from the more than 1.3 million people residing in the Memphis, Tenn., metropolitan area, Daughhetee has struggled to find farmhands. “The unemployment office did everything they could to help me, but I still couldn’t find people to fill those jobs,” he says.
His experience is unfortunately becoming more common among farmers and ranchers looking to hire help.
The U.S. unemployment rate hit 3.8 percent in June, an 18-year low, and for the first time on record there are more open jobs than people seeking employment. The shortage of job seekers has added to the challenge of filling farming positions. As urbanization has increased in recent decades, the number of people willing to work farm jobs has shrunk.
According to a survey of farm owners conducted by USA Farm Labor, a private agency which helps farmers find seasonal foreign laborers, about half of the respondents said the typical American job seeker is uninterested in agricultural labor and 52 percent said they failed to receive a single applicant for advertised positions on their farms.
“Our society has transitioned to more of a white-collar mindset,” says Manuel Fick, president of USA Farm Labor. “Most Americans aren’t interested in doing the hard work associated with manual labor.”
Daughhetee says declining work ethic is another major hurdle in finding reliable labor. He’s had workers refuse jobs because they would rather sit at home and draw unemployment. Daughhetee used to rely on enlisting local workers to help drive his tractors, combines and grain trucks, but he says that’s no longer feasible due to lack of interest.
Daughhetee has found some luck in hiring retired farmers who are familiar with operating agricultural machinery. These experienced farmers have great work ethic, but come with their own drawbacks. Many have a hard time keeping up with younger workers and are resistant to technological advancements.
“I usually have to follow the older guys into the field to set their GPS and, even then, they will still try to run it by hand,” says Daughhetee, “Then the younger guys absolutely cannot operate the equipment without all the bells and whistles.”
Recruiting International Help
Like other farmers who have wrestled with finding enough workers for their operations, Daughhetee has been forced to seek help beyond American borders to solve his labor shortage. He has used the federal H-2A guest worker program to bring seasonal employees into northeast Arkansas from Mexico and South Africa. This year he’s hired five to keep up with all the work needing to be done on his farm.
Before farmers can hire migrant workers through the H-2A program, they must prove they have advertised the job locally and were unable to secure domestic workers. They must also pay for the recruitment, housing and transportation to and from the guest worker’s home country. Workers are paid based on adverse effect wages, which is the minimum wage set specifically for workers on the H-2A visa and is usually higher than minimum wage in most states.
Although Daughhetee handles most of the H-2A process to find workers for his farm on his own, many farmers work with a placement agency for aid in navigating the complicated process.
“You would have to deal with about 20 pages of forms to complete the process 15 years ago,” says Fick. “Now, the process is more complex, and the volume of paperwork has grown to 180 pages due to increased regulation.”
Though many people associate migrant agricultural workers with unskilled laborers toiling on farms that produce fruit and vegetables, there is high demand for employees capable of operating large machinery with GPS capabilities, hauling grain and handling irrigation equipment.
Mark Martens, president of Agri Placements International, says large row-crop farms he works with demand people with advanced skills, the sort of employees that are the hardest to attract and keep. Farmworkers who can be trusted to run expensive equipment are especially valuable, but many of the American candidates for such positions are aging out or retiring.
“The availability of local workers for these types of jobs is basically nonexistent in most places,” Martens says.
Not as Simple as it Once Was
Jason Bean grows cotton, corn, rice and soybean on his farm in Holcomb, Mo., and has dealt with his own struggles to find farm workers. Like Daughhetee, Bean needs laborers who can operate heavy equipment and drive trucks.
He says hiring help isn’t as simple as it used to be because of the technological advancements in farm machinery. “It used to be that 20 years ago you could just hop on a sprayer and go. Now, it’s not so easy. There are multiple control units and a boundary system that only allow you to spray within a predefined area.”
There are also safety and liability concerns with untrained employees piloting today’s larger and more powerful farm implements.
“Putting someone with no knowledge of the equipment behind the wheel is an accident waiting to happen,” Bean says. He points out that commercial truck drivers have to be trained and licensed before they can legally drive, and he thinks farm equipment should be treated similarly.
The dearth of qualified candidates to hire concerns Bean, but he sees an opportunity to train young job seekers. He suggests adding vocational programs at schools in farm states which would specialize in teaching the operation of agricultural equipment and mechanics. Bean envisions students learning both in classroom and field settings to master the skills needed to be successful working on the farm. He believes this type of training would go a long way in providing a long-term solution to the agricultural labor shortage crisis.
“The education system is really doing a disservice to kids who don’t want to go to college,” Bean says. “We want all kids to go to college, but that’s not logical. Offering programs that train kids to do farm work would solve a lot of issues, and we have the resources to do this. We just need support from higher-learning institutions and corporate players to get a program started.
“It will take a village to solve this issue. We can’t continue to do the same things and expect different results. We need cooperation from all players to help us fill the gaps in labor in the agriculture sector.”