Time For a Reality Check
This will be a very difficult article for many of you to read. I can assure you that it is even more difficult for me to draft. We have been discussing and advocating for changes to improve our labor situation on our respective farms. Many of you have traveled to countless meetings in various locations such as Albany and DC to make your case. The end result is we have kept the debate alive but in truth seen little positive changes. So what do we do? Being from New York State and being a farmer giving up simply does not seem like a choice. We each have faced more setbacks that we have had no control over in the past. Is this setback like bad weather and weak markets? I would argue no. To continue to beat the same drum in the same way may however not be the best usage of our efforts.
America has always had a shortage of farm labor ever since the last Pilgrim stubbed his toes on Plymouth Rock. Non-agriculture occupations have always loomed in a more positive light here. We actually fought a Civil War over this very topic. This reluctance to change came close to destroying the Union. Time marches forward. Technology offers many changes to our work. In most work sites, technology has made the work less strenuous. The sad truth is that this is not the case in agriculture. Yes we have advanced machines to do many chores but the horse seems to have made out better than the field hands. The horse no longer pulls our farm tools but we still depend on a man to pick our fruit.
As farmers, we have always blindly accepted that the laws of supply and demand would decide the price of a bushel of apples. Yet we seem to not accept these same laws of supply and demand when it comes to our cost for labor. Today we have evolved and made great advances in our operations. New equipment, buildings and in general every advancement to our industry has been accepted and somehow we have found a way to finance this growth. So my question is, why is labor different?
I think it will continue to be the farm business that embraces new technologies that will survive. Supply and demand is very real. It is present in our ability to source the necessary human resources we need to remain world-wide competitive. Every industry has been forced with this similar dilemma. We have seen this in industry, entertainment, pro sports and more. In order to field the best human resources you have to offer the most attractive package. Agriculture is no longer immune to this truth.
I agree that we need a legal system to hire the best human resources necessary to operate in 2017. This may mean we need to source this labor from abroad. Many of the best hockey players and baseball players we watch every day are not US citizens. To remain at that elite level those enterprises have found a way to employ the necessary talent.
We need to accept that we are not the same agriculture of our grandfathers or for that matter our fathers. We are today “agribusiness” not simply the “family farm” that only hired family members and distant uncles. Times have changed. We have changed. The farms of the future will accept this and make the needed changes to source the most talented team. Yesterday is gone. It will only return in our memory. We need to see the reality that farm labor comes with cost. It is rare and it is talented. If you wish to draw from this limited pool you need to be willing to invest in it.