Md. feels grip of tightening farm labor market

Associate Editor

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Jan. 26, 2016) — When the Great Recession was bearing down on the economy and Ray Greenstreet needed workers for his nursery business in southern Anne Arundel County, he held a job fair and 75 people showed up, he said.
Now, when he’s looking for workers, things are a little different.
His business, Greenstreet Growers, has multiple locations across the metro area, and he struggles to find workers, he said, probably for many reasons.
“In Northern Virginia, I can’t get anybody,” he said. “It’s different economic conditions. ... A lot of labor has left this country. ... I’m not sure how that’s going to get fixed.”
Greenstreet was one of several Maryland Agricultural Commission members who voiced concern about the region’s tightening farm labor market at its monthly meeting Jan. 13.
Based on the comments, there didn’t appear to be a sector of the industry immune.
And cliché or unsurprising as farmers’ complaints about labor might sound, things might be different right now, said Tom Hertz, an economist with USDA’s Economic Research Service in Washington.
“That’s nothing new, but there are little bits of evidence that it’s getting worse in recent years,” he said in an interview with The Delmarva Farmer.
Hertz pointed to a 2012 study titled “The End of Farm Labor Abundance” that said the number of Mexican farm laborers coming to the United States has slowed to a crawl due to increasing Mexican economic prosperity and competition from Mexican farms.
Meanwhile, the number of guest workers in the United States through the federal government’s H-2A program has risen from 77,000 in fiscal year 2011 to 140,000 in fiscal year 2015, according to this month’s Rural Migration News, a publication on farm labor migration produced by the University of California, Davis.
The H-2A program is “not something that growers are delighted to do,” Hertz said. “It’s hard to work with, and they have to pay higher wages, and they have to pay for housing and transportation costs.”
Nationally, half of farm workers are unauthorized, he said, though that percentage is higher in some regions.
Tim Bishton, another Maryland Agriculture Commission member, said he needed someone to help milk cows on his Kent County farm a year ago, so he advertised in the local paper.
It took weeks to get a response.
He said he’s had to occasionally hire workers without farm experience.
“People would try milking for a day,” he said. “They’d come milk once and then never return. … Luckily, (last year) we had a former employee come back to work for us.”
Bishton said he thinks an improved economy is partly to blame, but he also thinks cultural and generational differences might be at play as well.
High school students, for instance, have a lot more going on today than they did decades ago.
“Talking to my uncles who have been in this business 40 or 50 years, they said it used to be easier to get high school kids than it is now,” he said.
Martha Clark, a Howard County farmer and commission member, also noticed high schoolers can get paid just as well on a more flexible schedule at local fast food restaurants.
But that’s not her main concern.
She said she’s seen a decline in the number of available truck drivers to haul grain from her farm and blames increased regulations on drivers.
Not to mention the regulations that keep her farm from being anything but a family affair.
“We don’t hire people strictly because of all the rules and regulations of bringing people outside the family onto the farm,” she said.
To deal with labor issues, Hertz said farmers may have to consider several options: Increase wages or improve working conditions on the farm, particularly in the region’s wealthier areas where competitive non-farm industries such as construction appear to be on the rebound.
“That’s supply and demand. There’s no way around it,” he said. Farmers “can try to improve working conditions and some of the non-wage aspects of the job to try and retain workers they have.”
That might include partially mechanizing your farm, he said.
An example: hydraulic lifts instead of ladders at the orchard.
Partially mechanizing a farm so less physical effort is required can broaden your pool of job applicants. Or do away with labor all together and fully mechanize.
Greenstreet said he’s hoping for a better guest worker program. He also thinks it might be a good idea to look to Puerto Rico, an island territory with a struggling economy whose workers are — conveniently — American citizens.
Or maybe farms could bus in workers from depressed areas such as Baltimore.
But those are, of course, entirely theoretical and not quick solutions. He’s got ideas to lure more workers to his nursery, and he knows he’s not alone.
“Everybody’s running into the same issue,” he said.