Vegetable growers and dairies struggle to find workers | TheFencePost.com

Vegetable growers and dairies struggle to find workers

The farm labor shortage is a concern for farmers, especially those who grow labor-intensive seasonal crops like vegetables.

And there doesn't seem to be a solution in sight.

Dave Petrocco, a third-generation Weld County farmer who produces cabbage, onions, green beans and lettuce, has struggled to find enough U.S. workers to help during the season, so he has turned to the H-2A program to fill the void.

The H2-A program allows foreign workers to come to the U.S., most commonly from Mexico, on a temporary basis. These workers can only do the job they're assigned to, for the time limit the producer has requested.

Most producers will only use the program if they absolutely have to because it is more expensive to hire foreign workers, they have to wade through a lot of paperwork and they can't always get the workers when they need them.

"In my opinion (H-2A) is a last resort option to get seasonal farm workers," Petrocco said.

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Until he needed to a few years ago, Petrocco stuck to U.S. workers, with one exception in the 1980s when he needed the additional help.

Now Petrocco, whose 3,000 acres of fields spread from Brighton, Colo., to north Greeley, has to rely on a government system every year.

ADDED EXPENSE

Petrocco said he's spending about 25 percent more a year because of the H-2A program.

Producers have to pay the agency that helps recruit and interview potential employees, and once they are hired, there are move expenses including:

• Travel from and to the employee's home country

• Housing for all H-2A employees

• Either three meals a day for each worker or free transportation to the grocery store once a week

• Other paperwork fees and costs

Also, the foreign workers must be paid the highest among the prevailing wage, which is an amount determined by the largest city in a county, the minimum wage or the adverse effect wage, which is determined by the U.S. Department of Labor. For Colorado, in 2017, the adverse wage at $11 an hour, is higher than the state minimum wage, $9.30. Not that farmers would only pay $9.30 an hour for U.S. employees, but they would have that option if didn't have to hire H-2A workers.

With the H-2A program, the workers are guaranteed to be paid for a minimum of 40 hours a week, whether they work those hours or not.

Last season wasn't very lucky for Petrocco. Two hailstorms wiped out acres and acres of produce, making it unsellable. But the workers are still guaranteed their pay.

Farmers are able to ask for an earlier end to the contract if an "act of God" occurs, meaning an unforeseeable event that leads to less, or no need for the workers.

This is subjective, however, and has to be reviewed. Thunderstorms or hail can fit into that category, but it's up to the reviewers to decide.

Sometimes, the bad weather can hit early enough to keep the workers out of work for a week or two. And again that's a week or so where they're not working 40 hours, but will still be paid.

THE PROBLEM

The reason for the shortage of U.S. workers to fill farm jobs is because it's labor intensive and seasonal.

Farm work is mostly done outside in the hot summer sun, pulling weeds, caring for crops and eventually harvesting the crops. Even though it's labor-intensive, there used to be many people willing to do it. Now those people are working in other labor-intensive, higher paying industries like oil fields or construction. These jobs also allow a chance for them to laydown roots, rather than moving around for work. Working the fields doesn't always extend that opportunity if there are no off-season jobs and housing is expensive.

For dairies, finding good help is even harder because they work year-round and the temporary H-2A program doesn't do them any good.

Dairy work is also labor intensive and time-consuming.

Chris Kraft, owner of Kraft Family Farms in Fort Morgan, Colo., said, on average, every worker has about 60-75 cows they tend to on a daily basis.

"We do not shut down," Kraft said. "We're like a hospital."

Most people prefer to have a nice nine-to-five job with plenty of vacation time and a two-day weekends. To those people, the dairy industry doesn't look so appealing.

A CALL FOR ACTION

At the Colorado Livestock Association Meeting on April 6, a panel of three agriculture leaders talked about issues producers are facing, with an emphasis on the labor immigration process.

Jackie Klippenstein, vice president of industry and legislative affairs for Dairy Farmers of America, called the process "broken."

"You need to address this issue because we will have foreign-born workers milking these cows," Klippenstein said. "The question is will they be doing it here or be dong it somewhere else."

Kraft said, on his dairy, they currently have the 75 employees they need but some of them are high school kids, like his son. Although they are willing to do the work, they will eventually be leaving to go to college.

But when these kids go off to college, they're going to start to build a career. Eventally they will graduate and some may even have their own dairies. Then they will competing for scarce employees to staff their farms.

So if the trend continues, the next generation of producers may run into the same problem, and it may get worse.

There's a question of how long producers can continue to keep paying more for foreign workers especially when commodity prices are low, which they are today.

"We question the future of our business," Petrocco said. "How long will we be able to withstand the trend?"

For some, like Bob Winter of Windsor, Colo., labor problems are part of the reason genetically modified organisms are used. In the case of sugar beets, the Roundup Ready sugar beets allow farmers to spray their crops with Roundup to kill weeds, but not damage the sugar beets. It also offsets their labor cost. Before Roundup Ready Sugar beets, weeds had to be removed mechanically or by hand.

That's why many organic farms are either smaller or have large staffs.

Winter, the Weld County representative for the Colorado Farm Bureau, once raised sugar beets, barley for Coors, pinto beans, corn for silage and alfalfa but not anymore.

"You just couldn't get the labor," he said.

HELP WANTED

For vegetable farmers, the decline in labor means crops left in the field to rot. In August, Robert Sakata, owner of Sakata Farms in Brighton and president of the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said at a roundtable that The Fence Post covered that he decided to forgo growing cabbage — a main crop on his farm — because there weren't enough workers.

If there aren't enough workers the food goes to waste.

Petrocco theorized the H-2A will not be reformed until there are too many crops going to waste.

Petrocco said a fair guest worker program — fair to the producer and the worker — is a solution the agriculture community needs.

Kraft said there needs to be something done to help dairy farmers get the labor they need to survive. And the H-2A program can't help them.

"We just need some guest workers," Kraft said.

He said he knows and understands the labor issue in the agriculture community isn't priority No. 1, or even in the top five.

But it's a priority that seems to already be atop of many producers' minds.

"This trend has been going on for about 10 years," Petrocco said. "Each year it seems to get worse to find people who are capable and able." ❖

— Fox is a reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at sfox@thefencepost.com, (970) 702-6417 or on Twitter @FoxonaFarm.

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