Farm employment: Drought impact adds uncertainty to hiring outlook

Farm employment: Drought impact adds uncertainty to hiring outlook

March 12, 2015

Source: Ag Alert

Even though reduced crop production caused by water shortages may reduce on-farm employment in California, farmers and farm labor contractors say they expect continued trouble in filling agricultural jobs this spring and summer.

"The drought is still ongoing, which means that there will be a lot of land left uncultivated," said Bryan Little, California Farm Bureau Federation director of employment policy and chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service. "This will probably soften the blow of the shortage of labor some, but everything I am hearing is that the labor market is still pretty tight."

Little said most of the farmers with whom he speaks "are finding that labor is still pretty scarce." He said farmers are expressing increasing interest in the federal H-2A guestworker program—despite its signficant drawbacks—while "relying more and more" on farm labor contractors.

San Luis Obispo County farmer Carlos Castañeda, who is also a farm labor contractor, said the growing season kicked off in his region earlier than usual. So far, he said, he has been able to hire the people he needs but, he added, there isn't an abundance of workers.

"My growers are cutting plantings back tremendously," Castañeda said. "Unfortunately, the shortage of water is helping the shortage of labor—but as soon as the water issues are solved, the labor one is going to go into warp speed."

About a month from now, Castañeda said, he expects several commodities will be ready for harvest at the same time, which will increase the need for on-farm employees and reduce the number of workers available.

Michael Frantz, co-owner of Frantz Wholesale Nursery in Hickman, said he remains concerned about finding enough people to do the highly technical work at his horticultural company, which specializes in landscape trees, shrubs and drought-tolerant plants.

"We have full-time employment that requires learning the skills of a trade that are taught on-farm. There are a lot of technical skills, whether it is grafting or budding and training of trees to be grown to retail-grade specifications, that take years to master," Frantz said. "For a nursery to grow consistent quality product, we need a workforce that looks at our nursery and our company as a career choice. Our best employees have been here 10 to 30 years."

Frantz said he has had problems hiring skilled workers for the past several years. In 2013, his nursery supplemented its own hiring with the use of farm labor contractors. Last year, he said, was "the first year that we were unable to fill all of the positions."

Frantz said his business printed fliers describing the company, its pay rates, benefits and other amenities.

"For the first time, we felt we had to sell ourselves to the community as opposed to expecting people to show up looking for work," Frantz said. "We set up card tables at the employment office and had human resources people there handing out fliers. That outreach had minimal results."

As a result, he said he is very concerned about locating reliable workers for this season, adding that many other nurseries share the same concern.

"This year, we are running ads on Spanish radio. We have ramped up our hiring efforts and already, it is early, but it seems that 2015 is going to be more difficult than last year," Frantz said. "The lack of a dependable ag workforce is preventing us from adding additional jobs and growing our family businesses like we would like to be able to do."

Earl Hall, owner of Hall Management Corp., a farm labor contractor headquartered in Fresno, said he is aware that agriculture faces a shortage of available employees, but says he has avoided shortages by being "real careful" not to expand unless conditions warrant.

"You have to be in this industry for a long time like I've been so that you know the trends and what is happening," said Hall, whose company reaches 50 years in business this year.

Castañeda said more growers are opting to use the federal H-2A program to hire immigrant employees, which he called an "expensive and absolutely bureaucratic nightmare, but it is the only tool available."

Little said use of the H-2A program among California farmers and ranchers remains relatively slight because of a variety of problems with the program, including its lack of the flexibility agricultural employers need to hire people on a timely basis.

Another factor affecting the availability of potential on-farm employees is reduced migration by Mexicans to the U.S., according to research conducted by Edward Taylor, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis, and doctoral student Diane Elise Charlton. Their research found fewer potential farm employees migrating to California due to growth in Mexico's non-farm economy, falling birth rates and an increase in rural education.

Because of this trend, Little said, Farm Bureau and other groups have advocated for a permanent solution to agricultural labor shortages through immigration reform.

Without legislation to address the country's current labor situation, bills such as the Legal Workforce Act would harm farms and ranches, Little said. The bill, which would require agricultural employers to use the E-Verify system to prove employment eligibility for agricultural workers, was approved last week by the House Judiciary Committee.

"We are absolutely, adamantly opposed to moving forward with mandatory E-Verify until we know we are going to get a workable guestworker program," Little said.

California agriculture relies on about 400,000 employees during peak season. Some experts estimate that 70 percent or more of hired farm employees responsible for U.S. fruit, vegetable, dairy, livestock, nursery and other production are not authorized to work in the United States, despite presenting apparently legitimate work documents, Little added.

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