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Show What Farmers Do, Local Laborers Say

by Carolina Keegan

Published: Friday, September 23, 2022

Ag Labor in Focus

Local ag employees say that company image and outreach is key to attracting more laborers from the community.

Levi Bridgeforth is a wash line supervisor for Black Gold Farms in Winamac. As a wash line supervisor in his 50s, Bridgeforth monitors the potatoes after they are unloaded from the field trucks to the stinger, which takes the potatoes into the surge bin and the hydro-sorter.

After the potatoes go through the hydro-sorter, they are conveyed to the wash line and the grading table. The graders then pick out the bad potatoes and send the rest through the even flows to a scanner that picks up any missed materials such as corncobs and golf balls. From there, they are moved to transport trucks, which take them to various chip plants, such as Frito-lay and Shearer's.

His family has lived in Monterey since 1962. He says he was raised in the country, picking his own vegetables and working in the soil. When he grew up, he moved to Chicago and worked there. But when he retired, Bridgeforth decided to return to Monterey and fix up his family's summer house.

He reached out to his godfather, asking for work suggestions to keep him busy and that landed him at Black Gold.

"I came in not knowing anything about farming," Bridgeforth said.

But because he was able to multitask and learn new skills, he moved from cleaning the trucks that transport potatoes to his current supervisory position.

"I didn't think I would enjoy this type of work, but I do, because it's rewarding. I'm providing a service that helps everybody," Bridgeforth said.

He started seasonally but eventually moved back to full-time work. Coming from a military background, he believes in doing everything with 100 percent effort.

"After a while, I fell in love with it."

Sammy Moore, Osceola, works full-time as a food service manager at Goshen Hospital, but that doesn't stop her from getting involved in her farming community by working part-time for Bennet Farms in Edwardsburg.

She met Bennett while working at Goshen Hospital when he was a GFS driver, and she now sells his products at farmers markets in Indiana. Last week, she could be spotted in the Valparaiso market, surrounded by coolers of fresh cuts of meat.

Moore has been working as a marketer since 2017.

"I think it's pretty cool. I come from a food service background, so I appreciate high-quality food and food that I know where it comes from, and so, being able to help and work for Tom, see how the food is grown and to be able to offer good cooking advice," Moore said.

Moore didn't grow up on a farm, but she did grow up around horses.

"I loved being able to be on farms because I had some horses growing up, and so growing up with having to take care of a 1,000-pound animal everyday teaches you real hard work as you have to take care of them."

Bridgeforth says that many people look for places where the work isn't as labor-intensive, the hours are shorter and the pay is higher.

"The work environment as a whole, it has to be conducive to the employee," he said. "If they know they have an upside of growth potential in the company, it's an added bonus for the company to keep them, because then they can be transferred to different roles."

However, with the utilization of H-2A, companies don't have the option of advancing those employees.

Bridgeforth sees some economic disadvantages with the H-2A program because when the rules require employers to provide housing, transportation and cover most of their workers needs.

"If you can hire your local people, it (money) stays right here. They have houses, they're trying to keep their homes. They're spending the money right back here in the community and that's more beneficial," he said.

The upside to using H-2A is that it guarantees a set group of people dedicated to a specific task or set of responsibilities.

"Right now, hiring people to do this type of work is very taxing. I guess that's why a lot of companies are looking for H-2A workers, because it's a set standard with them," Bridgeforth said. "At the same time, it's a lot of hours, so I think the local people look at it as manual labor with a lot of hours and don't want to be put into it."

Due to shortages, Bennett Farms has had to cancel on markets a few times this year, Moore said, because not enough people work there to cover shifts if someone is away.

"If we don't have enough people to work, we have to cancel markets," she said. "It definitely shortens our total sales, but it also shortens our exposure to our regulars. It could be frustrating to some of our regulars who are used to always seeing us and we then we don't have that consistency. We care about that relationship with the regulars, and it's hard when that gets hit."

There are many reasons why agriculture is experiencing such a shortage of employees, they said.

"A lot of people are saying that this generation isn't working as much. It could also be a factor of less people available to work or people are choosing different industries to work in," Moore said.

Another problem with hiring from a local selection is the number of people trying to move away from farming, Bridgeforth says. However, he believes there is a balance between those who grow up to leave farming communities and those who grow up to embrace them.

"It is long hours, it's tedious work. But, at the same time, it's rewarding work because it's beneficial for everybody," he said.

Many places are short-staffed in general, which is a leading factor in why ag businesses are experiencing more workforce shortages, Moore says. She also says more generations are removed from farms.

"Nowadays, not a lot of people grow up on farms, so it's not as common. Fewer people are doing it so fewer people know that it's an option," Moore said. "I feel like a lot of people get into ag because they grew up in it."

"If people don't grow up in it, it's hard to see what it's like," she added.

Working on a farm, individuals often put in between eight and 15 hours a day, seven days a week.

"People may say this is meaningless work, but it's not. They're quick to say the migrants and immigrants can do it, but there are people here who can do it, too," Bridgeforth said. "But you also have to make it inviting, you know? Give them a chance, make it where the pay is equal and good enough for them."

Bridgeforth is a firm believer in hiring workers from the community and keeping the work in the U.S. He says that if farmers continue to hire from the H-2A program, the economy will eventually suffer because the money they are paid does not stay in the U.S. It is important to keep the dollars in the cycle for the community, he added.

"The hiring of H-2A workers compared to local laborers takes away from the community," Bridgeforth said. "Here within Winamac, Pulaski County, Knox, Starke County, Fulton County, Marshall County, you have a lot of individuals who are looking for some form of employment. If they can get it here in the agricultural business, at some of these farms like Black Gold, it would be beneficial because that money is kept in the community."

Work environment is a significant factor in why Moore stays on part-time as a marketer.

"Tom is a great person to work for. He's very laid-back, but he also takes a lot of pride in what he does and it's really cool to be a part of that. I definitely don't mind having the side income."

Using a military metaphor, Bridgeforth said, "If you keep the troops happy, you keep the morale happy and you keep the commanders happy. If the commanders keep the troops happy, everybody wins."

Continual training and learning are also a large part of keeping a business healthy and growing, she said.

"It's definitely something that everybody should keep in the forefront of being an employer and being an employee."

Bridgeforth encourages farmers and agribusinesses to think about what they will gain on the backside of increasing benefits.

"If I could tell most people—farmers or companies that are in the agricultural business—if you want that labor, you have to make it inviting," he said. "The same way you would pay all of this up front for the H-2A workers, if you just take two-thirds of that, and put it to your local economy, local people or local talents, it may not happen right away, but they will come."

Bridgeforth has nothing against workers in the H-2A program, he says, but he would like to see more community involvement in agriculture.

"I'm a good ol' American boy," he said. "Let's keep it at home. That mentality is what makes America great. We want to keep that same philosophy of moving forward and being the leaders of everything we do, even in agriculture. To do that, we have to support people from the ground up."

He says a key strategy in getting local employment is opening the company back up to the community and showing them what is done there. Ways to do this include hosting farm tours and utilizing social media.

Tom Bennett does the best he can to accurately describe the work and reach out to the community to find new employees, she said. Bennett Farms is very active on social media and works to keep costumer relations positive and growing. Via social media, he is able to give followers an exposure to farm life.

"If people got to see more of the highs and how great you feel after watching your product grow or be raised and see how all of it works, or if people saw what the life was like, they would be more interested in it or be exposed to it at least."

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