Domestic labor, foreign labor and the horticultural industry

by Courtney Llewellyn

Anxiety is the feeling of fear or apprehension about what’s to come. Its symptoms often arise when it seems like things are out of your control – during a global pandemic, for example, or in the long recovery from it.

According to the Purdue University/CME Group Ag Economy Barometer, labor concerns may be contributing to producers’ anxiety as farms that normally hire nonfamily labor reported more difficulty in hiring labor this year than in 2020. A little over half (54% in 2020, 51% in 2021) of those surveyed reported hiring nonfamily members. In June 2021, 66% of respondents said they either had “some” or “a lot of difficulty” in hiring adequate labor, compared to just 30% of respondents in 2020.

Yes, the busiest portion of the planting season is done, but what about harvest? What about winter work? What about 2022, which is only a few months away?

How to Hire Locally

Jill Santopietro Panall

Jill Santopietro Panall, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is the driving force behind 21Oak HR Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She works mostly with small businesses, nonprofits and startups ranging from two to 200 employees, assisting them with all their human resources needs. She also has a client that is a family farm that’s been in business for 60 years. They run a farm stand, a CSA, sell some wholesale and do U-pick for berries, apples, peaches – and they recently added flowers. “They’re doing a lot to bring people to the farm,” Santopietro Panall said.

But bringing customers in isn’t the problem. “Last year, their farm labor force was trapped in their home country until July, when they normally would have come to work in March,” she said. “It was difficult for them to find local help, and when they did, they were slower and less productive. A lot of people don’t understand what farm labor entails.”

One apparent silver lining of 2020 was that people wanted to spend more time outside, including time volunteering at farms and garden centers. But Santopietro Panall cautioned against depending on those visitors. “A core part of your business should not rely on volunteers,” she stated. “You need to pay people for your core work.”

The biggest challenge in hiring for that core work – planting, transplanting, weeding, harvesting and all the more traditional agricultural labor – right now is competition, and not necessarily from outside sectors. “The marijuana and hemp industries are pulling a lot of people into their orbit. They pay well; they’re indoors and climate-controlled; they’re often 9-to-5 jobs,” Santopietro Panall said. In a semi-related field, the building/construction industry is also pulling in a lot of people with its higher wages.

So how do you hire locally? Santopietro Panall provided some tips. First, know your competition – and know that a lot of low-wage jobs don’t mean low-skilled workers. If you can, find out what similarly sized businesses are paying. “To draw people in or to keep your workforce, can you temporarily raise wages? Or offer bonuses?” she asked, but also cautioned that you need to think about the longevity of your wage rates.

To grow your workforce, make connections between your farm and your food and receptive audiences, and get them involved in your work ASAP. If you have a regular customer who has said they love your greenhouse and would love to work there, seriously consider offering them a position.

Santopietro Panall also heartily suggested reaching out to more women. “It’s key to recognize their roles on farms too,” she said. Farming is still often seen as a masculine profession, but good growers can come in many different packages.

Explore how your traditional hiring process works and adapt it if need be. If you use paper job applications, consider adding a digital option too. Instead of posting an opening to a generic site, like Craigslist or Indeed, consider something more specific, such as Florasearch Inc., an employee search firm for the horticulture industry. And, when you’ve found the right person, move from their hire to their first day as quickly as possible to actually get them on the job.

Treat your employees as an integral part of your business. “Let them know they’re not just a replacement for a tractor,” Santopietro Panall said. “Give them context as to why they’re doing what they’re doing. Don’t just give them tasks.”

The big difference in finding and retaining people is how you treat your employees, according to Santopietro Panall. “That’s how you get more employees. Treat people like people, not work robots. Appreciate and educate them – people want to learn about farming. Make them feel welcomed, valued, prepared and supported.”

How to Get Help with H-2A

It’s no secret that the H-2A program, which allows farmers to hire temporary agricultural workers from 80 different countries, has helped many operations who couldn’t find the local labor they needed. However, that’s not a streamlined process either.

Kerry Scott

One organization hoping to make the process a little less painful is másLabor, a business-to-business consulting firm dedicated to assisting employers with the federal H-2A and H-2B non-immigrant visa programs. They bring in workers from 11 countries (with 93% of laborers coming from Mexico).

“We expected things to be worse last year, but all three government agencies involved with the [H-2A] program stepped up and made it work,” said Kerry Scott, a program manager with másLabor. “But borders are still opening and closing – consider South Africa, for example – so it’s still a bit of a mess.”

Scott explained the Senate has yet to take up the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA), bipartisan immigration legislation that would provide undocumented farmworkers and their family members a path to legal immigration status and citizenship, revise the H-2A guest worker program to address some employer and worker concerns and impose mandatory employment verification (“E-verify”) in agriculture. (You can read a fact sheet at

“It would help some things but not others,” Scott stated. As far as legislative work goes, he noted that there are also plans to disaggregate farm wages, with no adverse effect wage rate (AEWR). “It’s a good idea on the face of it, as it only makes some wages higher, but advocates are against it so nothing is happening.”

He continued that with the new inflationary period, everyone’s wages are going to take a jump. The biggest stumbling block for a lot of farmers hoping to bring in foreign labor, however, is providing adequate worker housing.

Still, Scott is optimistic. “I think H-2A is going to explode,” he said. According to the Cato Institute, H-2A employment increased fivefold between 2005 and 2019.

“Growers right now have a workforce they cannot 100% rely on,” he concluded. “The remaining workforce may not be doing a good job. You get capable, reliable, legal workers with H-2A, and luckily there are businesses like us that deal with the bureaucracy for farmers. A client in Washington State said working with us helped him stop worrying about labor altogether.”

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