You might say that small-scale vegetable farmers are experts when it comes to navigating uncertainty. From erratic weather to shifting consumer demand and everything in between, farmers deal with risk and ambiguity on a daily basis. But as this year draws to a close, one uncertainty in particular is weighing heavily on farmers’ minds: the availability of hired labor.
FairShare recently co-hosted a grower gathering on this topic that drew nearly 70 farmers from across the upper Midwest. During the discussion, one Minnesota farmer shared his labor forecast: “At this point, I’m looking at having no returning employees for 2022.” While farmers are all facing unique challenges in this area, it was immediately clear that many could relate to the stress of this situation.
The issue itself is not a new one. Over the years, farmers have struggled to attract and keep employees on their farms. In a labor-intensive industry, employees play a critical role in bringing good food to the fore – whether through a CSA share, farmers market, or your local grocery store or restaurant. But choosing farming as your profession when you’re not the farm owner can be challenging. Agricultural wages tend to be less competitive than those in other labor-intensive industries. Meanwhile, employees often have to deal with rising housing costs, personal debt, and limited access to health insurance. Add to that the seasonality we experience here in the Midwest and the fact that most farm jobs don’t exist during the winter months, and you’ve got a decent picture of just how complex this issue is!
Farmers are well aware of these challenges, and many have been working hard to assess and address them within their own operations. As one Central Wisconsin producer shared, “I’m focusing on finding great employees, whatever way I can.” For some, that means exploring ways to provide employee housing – either on or off the farm. Others are rearranging their budgets so they can build health insurance or off-season stipends into their compensation packages. And as a $15 an hour starting wage becomes more common across the broader jobs market, many producers are looking at how to continue to increase wages on the farm. As one farmer shared, “We put a lot of effort into our farm culture, and employees see and appreciate that. But they can’t stay because they can’t afford a life. And as an employer, that is awful to hear.”
Labor costs, however, already represent one of – if not the – greatest expenses for farmers, so what might seem like a minor adjustment is almost certainly part of a more complicated calculus. “If I bring in a new employee at $15 an hour, that means my manager now needs to be making at least $20 an hour.” And though farmers are building financial equity through their farm businesses, it’s not uncommon for them to make less per hour than some of their employees. As one farmer reflected, “I’d love to be making $15 an hour.”
So what’s the plan? For many, it involves adjusting CSA share prices and asking members to support higher wages. “We’re raising our prices by 15 percent for 2022 – by far the biggest increase I’ve ever considered, and I’m really nervous about it.” For this farmer, however, that revenue will support higher wages for her and her employees while also taking into account the steady price increase of “just about all supplies, equipment, and soil amendments we use on the farm.”
Meanwhile, some farmers are considering scaling back their operations. “We can’t handle another year like this one – hoping to hire but not being able to.” For this producer, the answer is to farm on fewer acres and decrease the size of their CSA so it’s manageable with a smaller farm crew. But while this may feel like a short-term solution, some farmers worry about the long-term implications. In fact, many have been trying to reach a certain farm size that supports greater work-life balance. To go backwards and farm with fewer hands is making some wonder how they’ll manage to continue farming into their 50s or 60s.
And still others are looking inward as they continue to strengthen their skills and confidence as employers. Farm employees have emphasized how important a professional, organized, and supportive workplace is to them. And farmers are continuing to recognize the role they can play in creating an environment that not only draws employees to their farms, but encourages them to stay for the long term. FairShare has been working with Dane County Extension and the School for Workers to create a labor management training program for diversified vegetable producers. The Becoming the Employer of Choice program - launching in January 2022! - will allow farmers to increase their confidence as employers and hone the skills needed to create a positive and productive work environment.
Despite the uncertainty that small-scale vegetable farmers are facing these days, we do know a few things: our farmers are resilient, and they’re pretty darn good at solving problems. As we head into 2022, farmers are taking the time to explore opportunities, look for solutions, and learn from one another on these many challenges facing the profession today.