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.

Fresh produce has numerous health benefits - but unfortunately, nutritious food is not easily accessible to everyone. And for many people with chronic health conditions, medical care costs strain already tight budgets and makes access to fresh produce even more challenging. That’s why, in northern Wisconsin, FairShare-endorsed farmer Kat Becker of Cattail Organics and health insurance provider Aspirus Health Plan have teamed up to provide CSA shares to members with long-term health conditions.

For the last three years, Kat has been providing fresh, locally grown produce through her CSA to members of Aspirus Health Plans’ Comprehensive Care Coordination program. Aspirus Health Plan refers participants with long-term health conditions (from diabetes to high blood pressure and congestive heart failure) to receive a CSA share. In addition to fresh produce, those participating also receive recipes and tips on how to use the vegetables included in each week’s share.

Participants in the program receive a 20 week CSA share as well as an extended 4-week fall share. By providing access to 24 weeks of fresh, nutritious produce to members with chronic health conditions, Aspirus Health Plan hopes to remove financial barriers to eating the fresh foods that have the potential to improve chronic health conditions.

“We would rather pay for people to get healthy food options than see members prescribed to a fifth or sixth prescription,” says Lauren Schrage, Director of Operations at Aspirus Health Plan. “We wish we had a Kat in every county we serve.” In 2021, Aspirus Health Plan provided CSA shares to 40 members. But because the program is funded through the health plan, it will be difficult to expand much beyond this level right now.

There are not many programs like this across the nation, and Kat notes that the partnership is unique in many ways. “Most of the people in our CSA aren’t ‘foodies’, they just want access to affordable good food.” Some health care providers offer reimbursement towards the cost of a CSA share as an incentive for enrollment, but Aspirus Health Plan is using the program as a support for people to afford dietary changes, and they hope to show the positive health impact this access may have.

“Health and food should be more logically linked” says Kat. “Getting healthy food to people with health problems where it’s not accessible and helping them access it can be very powerful. Right now our system is very disjointed, and there’s not a lot of support for people who have a limited income but are not below poverty line. And there are added expenses for people with significant health problems that aren't always reflected in their income level that makes it harder to access healthy food.” Through their partnership, Kat and Aspirus Health Plan hope to continue providing healthy, nutritious food to those with chronic health conditions to build healthy behaviors and increase access to nutritious food.

And Kat is committed to helping participants continue accessing fresh produce even after the 24 weeks that Aspirus Health Plan provides its members. By connecting members to Partner Shares (FairShare’s food access program) as well as programs like Double Up Food Bucks and other farmers’ market incentives, she hopes to support longer-term access to fresh food for participants. Ensuring that people with chronic health conditions can eat good food for a number of years on end could potentially make a big positive impact.

“We love the program and would love to see it replicated, even if it isn’t our own health program,” says Lauren, “because we’re connecting people to a resource that should be so easy to obtain but is so hard at times in our current system, and educating them on how to use it.”

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Anticipated outcome: Develop a plan for 2020 CSA marketing materials

Actual outcomes: Identified priorities for what we want to show and marketing materials and how we want to assess the actual content.

We used the Food System Racial Equity Assessment Tool to examine our 2019 CSA Campaign. Our materials seem to work for our traditional audience, but have gaps around the price for shares and what CSA is/means. We need to think more carefully about which new audiences we want to attract (Millenials for instance) and what we need to include in our materials to reach them. Our video ad does show people of color, by chance, not design. Those are the people who came to mind for those roles based on their work, not on their skin color. When we show people in our materials, we do want to show people of color but need to do so in a way that is not tokenizing. Perhaps we could pass our materials by people that we as staff and board do not represent and make changes based on their input. They should be friends of the organization and there has to be something in it for them. This topic relates to our lunch on Community Partnerships.