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Policymakers Urge Creative Solutions for Ag Labor


by Carolina Keegan

Published: Friday, September 30, 2022

Ag Labor in Focus
Last Article in Series


"Workforce was the biggest issue pre-Covid," Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said. "It's even worse now."

While the availability of laborers has been a continual problem in agriculture for many years, it has recently reached its brink nationally and demanded institutional attention. Braun, along with Brantley Seifers, the Indiana Farm Bureau national affairs coordinator, and Bruce Kettler, director of Indiana State Department of Agriculture address farmers' concerns.

"I am optimistic that the labor issue will improve over the next decade," Seifers said. "Just in the past few years, we have seen this conversation come to the forefront both at home and nationally. We are optimistic that the issues with ag labor will improve simply because of the significant need. With the labor issue being talked about more and more over the past several years, we hope that means that change will follow."

As with any business, Kettler says that no farm can remain successful without sufficient labor. If the market for agricultural employees doesn't expand, he says agribusinesses will surely be stifled.

"This concern is even more prevalent in our livestock and specialty crop sectors," Kettler said "I would suggest farmers continue to remain involved in their local community and express their needs to their chamber of commerce and their local education leaders.

"Making connections with younger generations and teaching them about agriculture and encouraging them to get involved is what will make this industry thrive," Kettler said.

Seifers also stresses getting the younger generations involved in agriculture.

"Educating the next generation on farming and getting them involved early has helped," Seifers said. "Additionally, Indiana is fortunate to have several ag universities that can connect farmers with students who are interested in work on the farm."

Kettler says three reasons why there is a shortage of employees are: noncompetitive pay, youths' lack of knowledge about how to get involved in farming, and a depleting passion for agriculture.

"I think farmers who are wanting to hire help and are willing to teach young people should start by reaching out to their local FFA chapter advisors and/or 4-H leaders and asking for connections to students who want to learn this trade," Kettler said.

Creating a partnership with other farms that need help and reaching out to colleges are other ways Kettler says farmers can recruit employees.

Federal government policy is what Braun says is hurting farmers most, noting that relief funds have encouraged people to stay unemployed.

"Ag is feeling the brunt of it," he said.

However, he says that inflation is driving people back into the workforce, giving farmers a larger field of possible hires. Having a sufficient labor force is what keeps farm systems efficient.

"We know that behind a safe and productive food system are millions of agricultural workers, that work hard each day from the field to the processing plant to the trucks to ensure Hoosiers have safe and reliable food," Kettler said. "We work closely with our state and federal delegations to ensure that agriculture and labor issues are front of mind."

Ag employers are having to get more creative with an increased national demand for employees. They are finding new ways to do more with fewer employees and are exploring new ways to attract and retain workers.

Some employers are increasing wages to allow for more vacation time during the slow season, while others are prioritizing company culture, which Kettler says is something the agriculture industry hasn't always done. Another opt-

ion, he notes, is the H-2A labor program.

However, many farmers voice frustrations with the H-2A program. Chuck Mohler, also known as Sweet Corn Charlie near Millersburg, notes that the program is so expensive it almost isn't worth using. However, due to a lack of local interest in farm work, it is his only option. Maureen Kercher, co-owner of Kercher's Sunrise Orchard in Goshen, says the regulations involved in the program make it nearly impossible to use.

Braun says he agrees 100 percent with farmers who are frustrated with the H-2A program, saying the U.S. needs immigration reform.

"Tackle border security first, then go back to what was working when the border was in place and enhance that," Braun said.

The INFB is working with members to expedite the process of hiring, on-boarding and retaining H-2A employees, according to Seifers.

The ISDA is also giving attention to farmers' concerns about H-2A.

"We understand those concerns about H-2A and have lifted them up to our federal delegation. We are supportive of year-round H-2A visas, which would be transformational for those sectors of agriculture who could use year-round help, specifically livestock and dairy," Kettler said. "I'm hopeful Congress will come to a compromise on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act which has the potential to create meaningful improvements to the current system."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is currently developing a new farm labor stabilization and protection grant program, announced by the Biden administration earlier this year. The grant will provide support to ag employers in implementing "robust" labor standards.

The $65 million American Rescue Plan Act is funding the program, which will address current ag labor shortages, increase use of legal pathways such as H-2A, and improve conditions for farmworkers.

Supporting the reform of the H-2A program, connecting with the local community to increase agricultural knowledge and the ag workforce, and keeping wages competitive are three issues Kettler says farmers should focus on while addressing labor deficiencies.

"I do see it improving. Technology is always increasing, so that will help with the labor demand," Kettler said. "But, knowing the average age of an Indiana farmer is over 55, and they, of course, want to enjoy retirement, we need to increase our younger labor force."

Looking at what the community can provide to address workforce shortages, staying engaged with the local legislator and telling your story are three things Seifers says farmers should be focused on as they address labor shortages.

"Every farm and rural community is different, so we're continuing to have conversations with our members to find the strategies that they've seen work on their farm and in their community," Seifers said. "We also remain in contact with our state and federal legislators to make sure they understand what's happening at the local level to better inform the decisions they're making at the Statehouse and in D.C."

Alongside labor issues, INFB is focusing on housing, childcare, rural schools and emergency services in order to grow rural communities.

"Rural viability is an overarching priority for INFB, and rebuilding and strengthening our rural communities can't be done by focusing on just one issue," Seifers said. "Labor is a key role to rural viability for our communities, but we must also look beyond just growing the workforce."

INFB is optimistic that these labor concerns will have a renewed focus next Congress, and Seifers says they will continue to work with legislators to address the labor issue.

"Farmers are resourceful, and when faced with the labor shortage our members are looking to new technology that can cover part of the gap brought on by the labor shortage," Seifers said. Drones and milking robots are examples of this new technology.

Farmers can address their labor challenges by raising wages in the right areas and continuing to show a strong work ethic, Braun said.

Securing the border, improving the process for obtaining work visas, and encouraging participation rather than incentivizing non-participation, are all important actions that can help address the national labor shortage.

Kettler encourages agribusinesses to look at company culture, retention rates and the turnover rates of employees. He expresses value in learning why employees are leaving; is it increased wages?

"I want farmers and agribusinesses to know we are doing what we can to build up our agriculture workforce and create leaders who want to return to agriculture," Kettler said.

One thing the ISDA is doing in December to encourage people to enter the agricultural workforce is hosting an ag-based career fair at the Indiana Farm Equipment and Technology Expo with Hoosier Ag Today. They will be showcasing agribusinesses that are currently hiring.

While individuals like Levi Bridgeforth, whose story was told in last week's issue, are looking for higher, competitive wages and better benefits, farmers say they simply cannot compete with high-paying companies in the area. Such was the case for Kercher and Mohler, who are contending with the recreational vehicle business. Aside from raising wages, experts encourage farmers to do what they can to maintain an attractive work environment.

Addressing farmers' frustrations surrounding the

H-2A program, INFB is working with farmers to smooth out the hiring and onboarding processing, and USDA, ISDA and Braun are supporting reform in ag labor and immigration.

Although farmers have expressed their frustrations with bringing more youths into agriculture-- many believe youths simply lack interest or a good work ethic—current employees and experts say bringing youths back into the industry is key.

However, there are many things demanding the attention of today's youth which do not involve agriculture, and farmers thus far have not found a fool-proof way to draw them into the industry. Some have turned to the H-2A program rather than devote high amounts of energy into their recruitment efforts, and others have turned to those looking to come out of retirement. No one answer seems to be the solution.

With a lingering ambiguity concerning the solution for ag labor shortages, the question remains: Who is the future of American agriculture?

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