by Bill and Mary Weaver
“I would like to speak today about a question that keeps me awake at night,” stated Russell Redding, Keynote Speaker at the 2015 Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, PA, who was recently nominated to become the next PA Secretary of Agriculture. “Our biggest challenges in agriculture today aren’t consumer preferences or a proper shelf life. What keeps me awake at night is how to bring enough human capital into agriculture,” Redding said.
The most recent census, according to Redding, shows that only 2 percent of our population is actively engaged in production agriculture, exactly the same percent that is in our military. “Agriculture is a strategic industry and is necessary to a functioning society, just like education, healthcare, finance and the military and ought to be planned for as such. We need to plan so the workers will be there when we need them.” According to the USDA, in addition to the 2 percent working in production agriculture, the agriculture industry supports a total of 16.5 million people or 9.2 percent of the population of the U.S., when you include all those who are involved in industries related to agriculture.
Redding cited several “now actions,” as he called them, that today’s growers, farmers and educators can take, starting immediately, to help to ensure that we have the workers and managers we need for American agricultural excellence to continue into the future.
First, do a careful review of your own skills, and those of employees and the family members who work for you. Develop a plan for the growth of your farm business, and assess the skills needed to compete and to grow in today’s marketplace. Some people are outstanding growers, others are great at sales and others shine in the shop. Assess both what you and your employees are good at and what you’re not good at. Identify those skill gaps. The reality is that some of the skills you need may not exist in your current business. Even though you may be able to find someone within the business who may be able to do certain jobs that may not be the best approach. Identify those skills that could be obtained through training, or by reaching out to new employees, and then act.
Second, develop and complete a transition plan. “Farm Journal Media did a survey of farmers about transition plans,” stated Redding. Stunningly, although 80 percent of those surveyed said they intended to work out a transition plan, only 20 percent had completed a full transition. Planning for an economic transition is essential so your farm business does not cease to exist for the next generation. It’s equally important, however, to teach the skills you’ve learned and the work you do to someone else who will be able to carry it on, should you be unable to do so. This is another very important “now actions” to take. “Often the answers to transition decisions are already in your business,” Redding continued. “Ask for help. ‘How could I do this?’ In some cases growers have been able to identify the goal of hiring an apprentice who, with training, will be qualified to step in.”
Third, we need to begin intentionally working to change the views of many current students toward agriculture as a potential career. “I’ve seen that many college students have a view of agriculture and farming that is one-dimensional. They believe that their one-dimensional view is all there is to farming. “We need to start a conversation with these students about all the career opportunities in agriculture.” We need to help them obtain information that could help to change their view of what we do. We need to do this very intentionally. Farm internships are one such way, and they can be offered to high school or college students. “We can encourage schools to use K-12 education as a platform to teach agricultural science and to talk about career opportunities in agriculture.
Redding concluded, “I wanted, in this presentation, to start a conversation about the future needs of the fruit and vegetable industry in terms of labor and human capital.” First you plant; then you harvest. The seeds we plant today, such as the “now actions” mentioned above, could play a part in producing a harvest of agricultural workers with the needed skill sets for the future. “I look forward to working with you on this issue.”
by Bill and Mary Weaver