by Gail March Yerke

It seems like there are “Help Wanted” signs everywhere you go these days. There are more job openings than there are people fit for those jobs. Whatever the cause, it’s definitely wreaking havoc with small businesses everywhere, especially those that heavily rely on seasonal help.

The most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Job Openings and Labor Turnover Report shows 11.5 million job openings in our country. That’s the highest number recorded since 2000, when the BLS first began tracking this segment of the labor market. With staffing needs often doubling during spring and summer, small farms and greenhouses are not exempt from the impact of this employment trend. Just ask Mike Backus of Prospect Hill Garden Center.

“How could so much change in a year?” he asked. “I look around and just don’t understand where the workforce went.” Patti and Mike Backus own and operate their family’s retail greenhouse and garden center in New Berlin, WI. Even with help from their son Greg and daughter-in-law Rachel, they are struggling to keep up this spring with atypical limited staffing. “We usually have 20-plus employees by this time of year,” he said. “This year we only have eight employees and six of them are part-time. It has been a really rough year.”

For the first time since the Backus family started their business over 40 years ago, Prospect Hill Garden Center has been forced to close one day a week. “We are closed on Tuesdays and we have never done that before,” Mike said.

“We just can’t find enough cashiers,” Patti explained. With so little help, Mike said that he typically arrives at work between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. to get a head start on the day. Patti added, “We usually don’t get home until 7 or 7:30 at night. That makes for a long day.”

Anyone who works in the greenhouse industry knows that being closed even one day during the spring season doesn’t equate to a day off. Plants still need to be watered and their displays need to be stocked or changed out. It hasn’t helped that recent Midwest weather ricocheted from cold, winter-like temperatures to extreme heat overnight. It’s unusual for Wisconsin to hit 90º in early May. But, like much of the Midwest, that’s just what happened this spring. It’s taken a toll. Mike said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been this stressed out in spring.”

Piala’s Nursery & Garden Shop of Waukesha, WI, has experienced similar staffing issues at their garden center this year. Kathy and Jim Piala opened their first greenhouse in 1976 and are joined today by son Quinn and daughter-in-law Amanda, both licensed landscape architects. Operating their 30-acre property with greenhouse, nursery and landscape divisions requires more staff than most retail garden centers. “It has been very difficult to find enough workers,” said Kathy. “And the new workers just come and go so easily.”

Corinne Kizewski of Nichols Farm & Orchard tending tomato plants. Photo by Gail March Yerke

Even farmers markets are feeling the pinch. When there is a shortage of workers at their farm, even seasonal vendors can miss a scheduled market day. Norman Bruce, one of the market manager volunteers for the Downtown Waukesha Farmers Market, said that they’ll be missing several vendors this year because of labor problems. A local bookstore owner, he is a member of the downtown business association that sponsors the market.

Simon’s Gardens is a greenhouse grower and produce farm that will no longer be attending the Saturday morning event. In addition to looking for help at their farming and greenhouse operations, Simon’s Gardens staffs their retail store in nearby Brookfield, a suburb of Milwaukee. “Simon’s has been with us many years,” said Norman. “When I didn’t get their application, I actually called and spoke with Chris [Simon]. He told me, ‘I can’t find people to work for $12, $13 or $14 an hour. When I do, they don’t show up.’”

The Waukesha Farmers Market is working on a pilot program through their Facebook page. Its goal is to connect those that would like to earn a little extra money with vendors looking for help at their booths on Saturday mornings.

Finding employees isn’t much easier in Illinois. Corinne Kizewski of Nichols Farm and Orchard said that it’s harder to find people willing to work to their standards and get the job done on time. She helps manage one of the greenhouse production areas at the farm. The Marengo, IL, 500-acre property has a greenhouse range with hydroponic vegetable production, field crops and an orchard. Growing over 1,000 varieties of vegetables and 200 varieties of apples, they attend a dozen weekly farmers markets in the Chicago area, service 90 restaurants and offer a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. “It isn’t that people don’t want to work,” Corinne explained. “It’s the dedication that comes with a job, the care factor. It seems that they are just coming to the farm or anywhere else just for a paycheck.”

She added that it’s hard to find people willing to get the job done on time as well as up to their standards. “Fulfilling specific job positions is hard, so we have hired people that can be flexible in different areas. That way, when we are short-handed in an area, everyone can jump in and help with everything from delivery orders to CSA packaging or greenhouse pruning or harvest.”

Even though more and more younger workers are entering today’s job market, they are outpaced by those retiring from the workforce. In addition, some employees have decided to not return to work after the pandemic due to health concerns or childcare issues. Henry David Thoreau said, “Success usually comes to those too busy to look for it.” The current workforce perfect storm is definitely keeping farm and greenhouse owners busy. Despite this, they’re finding a way to their own continued success.