Already short on help, N Colo. farmers say oil and gas growth taking away more workers

Story Kristen Schmidt and Eric Brown
The Fence Post
Antonio Rojo bends over to pick up a few more squashes while working in a north Colorado field. (Josh Polson/The Greeley, Colo. Tribune)
Joshua Polson/ |

Farmers and dairymen nationwide are struggling to find enough workers, but some northern Colorado producers say they’re now facing an additional labor challenge; the area’s booming oil and gas industry is taking away even more help.

In recent years, many in agriculture have said worker shortages are an increasing problem, and studies and reports have backed up such claims.

Less locals are willing to do the work, producers say, and there’s not enough access to migrant workers from other countries — statements that have been a focal point of ongoing immigration reform talks.

Particularly hit hard have been vegetable growers and dairymen, whose operations are more labor-intensive than other areas of agriculture — like grain production, where harvest is done with combines or other machinery.

Some producers in northern Colorado have expressed the same frustrations in recent years, but say the problem here seems to be getting worse, because they’re competing more and more for their workers — and losing the battle — with better-paying and rapidly growing oil and gas operations, as well as construction companies.

There are some, like Weld County, Colo., dairyman Terry Dye, who say they’ve rarely had a problem finding enough workers. In Dye’s case, he said pays about 20 percent more than surrounding operations.

However, “since the first of this year, we have been struggling,” he noted.

Recent labor statistics back up claims that local workers are gravitating toward oil and gas jobs.

In July, Weld County saw its unemployment rate drop to 7.5 percent, down from 9.1 percent a year earlier, with much of that job growth seen in the oil and gas industry, according to a recent state Department of Labor and Employment report — which doesn’t factor in farm labor numbers.

According to the statistics, Weld County this year has gained 1,600 jobs, almost half in the mining, logging and construction industry.

Since Weld has no logging activity, it’s safe to say most of that job growth occurred in the oil and gas industry, experts say.

Meanwhile, many employers in agriculture are struggling to find enough help, they say.

Jordan Hungenberg with Hungenberg Produce, an operation that needs seasonal workers to hand-harvest their thousands of acres of carrots, cabbage and other vegetables, echoed Dye’s comments, saying they’ve historically been able to find enough workers, but are having a little trouble this year.

He added that reliable workers who have been with them for quite a while are making the switch from seasonal to full-time work in construction or the oil fields.

“There’s no doubt the growth of oil and gas production around here is making it tougher for us,” said Chris Kraft, a Fort Morgan-area dairymen, who sits on the board of directors for Dairy Farmers of America and Western Dairy Association, among other agriculture organizations.

A Double-Edged Sword

Many in northern Colorado have benefitted from the oil and gas influx.

For Weld County, the oil and gas impact has added up to $1 billion in assessed valuation during the last two years and lowered property taxes for all.

Much of the oil and gas activity in the region is taking place on farm and ranch land, which has provided a sharp income boost to some in agriculture.

For some producers, though, it’s caused some headaches, such as the higher-paying jobs offered by oil and gas companies that are taking away ag workers, which are already tough to come by, they say.

Dave Petrocco — who operates Petrocco Farms, and estimates he lost about $150,000 worth of vegetables in the fields in 2011 because he didn’t have enough workers to harvest the crops in time — said he’s continually having more trouble, competing with wages offered by construction companies and the oil and gas industry.

Kraft said he’s getting hit the hardest by the oil and gas industry in the loss of his medium-pay workers.

He explained that his more experienced employees who make about $20 per hour aren’t leaving.

But his workers who make $12-$14 per hour have little trouble finding oil and gas jobs that pay nearly double — and they often go that route.

Losing his workers in that pay range and at that skill level is particularly frustrating, Kraft said, “because that’s our future. Those are the guys we want to keep around, teach them everything … later put in charge and give the $20-per-hour jobs. But we’re losing a lot of those guys before they can move up the ladder. Then we’re starting over.”

Local farmers and dairymen aren’t expecting the issue to go away anytime soon.

Weld County is a “sweet spot” in the middle of the Niobrara shale.

The oil field that stretches from Colorado into Wyoming produced about 83,000 barrels of oil in 2008, but reached nearly 10 million barrels last year.

By 2020, some estimate the Niobrara’s production could jump to as much as 250,000 barrels per day.

Producers: Immigration Reform Needed

Kraft, like many others in agriculture, say the new issue of competition with petroleum companies and the overall struggle to find workers highlights the need for immigration reform.

For producers who struggle to find employees locally, available for them is the federal H-2A program to bring in migrant workers.

But it provides little relief, many say.

Farmers and dairymen describe the H-2A program as too costly — requiring employers to pay for migrant workers’ housing, among other expenses — and is “too cumbersome” with “too much red tape.”

Local farmers for the most part have stopped using it.

And for dairymen, like Kraft, the H-2A program only address seasonal work. His two dairies, where he employs about 75 workers, need people year-round.

Much to their relief, the Senate’s immigration reform bill, introduced in April, would do away with the existing H-2A visa program.

Among many things, the Senate’s immigration reform bill would replace the H-2A visa program with an at-will, employment-based visa and a contract-based visa. The visas would be good for three years — instead of 10 months — and could be extended up to six years.

Employers would have the option of providing a housing stipend for guest workers, instead of being mandated to provide housing.

With an estimated 50-70 percent of the current agricultural workforce undocumented, the Senate’s bill would allow those workers to establish legal status and work authorization in order to stabilize the agriculture workforce. Undocumented farm workers who could demonstrate a minimum of 100 work days or 575 hours working in agriculture over the past two years would be eligible for the “Agricultural Blue Card.”

Local producers say they’re hoping the House can put forward a similar bill, so the progress they feel is desperately needed can continue.

Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said Tuesday that four pieces of immigration-reform legislation, including the AgJOBS Bill, have been put in front of the House Judiciary Committee.

Gardner added that he’s expecting House action on the issue as soon as next month.

Like local farmers, Gardner on Tuesday stressed the need for immigration reform to keep Colorado agriculture “healthy and viable.”

Top U.S. officials, too, have expressed concerns for agriculture.

On July 29, the White House released a report titled, Fixing Our Immigration System: Benefits to Agriculture and Rural Communities.

Within the statement, a detailed economic chart outlined the impact on Colorado’s agricultural economy if immigration labor is eliminated.

It was estimated short-term agriculture production losses would be $59.9 million to $107.8 million. ❖


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