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Banks Hears Ag Labor Concerns

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, October 21, 2022

U.S. Rep. Jim Banks (R-3rd) visited the AgPlus grain facility in South Whitley last Wednesday to meet with company leaders and discuss issues impacting the agriculture industry. One of the main topics discussed was the U.S. labor shortage and how that is affecting companies like AgPlus.

"We can't grow our businesses and grow an economy that's healthy for everybody if we have such significant labor shortages," Banks said following a meeting with company leaders. "AgPlus says that they could hire 20 more people today if they could find them."

Jeff Mize, CEO of AgPlus, confirmed that the agricultural cooperative, with 11 locations in northeastern Indiana, could indeed hire 20 qualified people "on the spot." High on the priority list are truck drivers, fertilizer applicators and sales representatives.

The labor shortage isn't unique to the agriculture sector— it's affecting industries large and small across large swaths of the U.S. economy. With so many unfilled positions, businesses, including AgPlus, have raised wages to attract more workers.

Mize said the cooperative was already moving toward automation, even before the worker shortage. However, he said the labor situation has accelerated that trend. Pointing to one example, Mize said the company's Briggs facility, located south of Columbia City, can be operated by just one person.

"It's completely automated to the point that our guys send the information to the facility and the guy just plugs it in, liquid and dry. It's totally different than what it was," Mize said.

Previously, a facility of that size would require a staff of three to five people.

Mize said fertilizer application appears headed in the direction of automation—in the form of drones that fly over fields to apply product. He said there are companies that are developing that technology right now.

Currently, drones are used to scout fields but not for spraying.

When asked if there was anything the federal government can do about the labor shortage, Banks said it's a matter of having common-sense programs that encourage people to stay in the workforce. He pointed out that, during the pandemic, both federal and state governments provided generous unemployment benefits to workers.

"Turns out, when you pay people not to work, they stay home," the congressman and Columbia City native said. "That's one of the outcomes of the pandemic, and the Democrats' solution coming out of the pandemic was incentivizing people not to work. So, we have to incentivize people to work."

Other priority issues that came up during the visit were rail access and logistics.

AgPlus' South Whitley facility handles approximately 5 million bushels of corn and 2.5 million bushels of soybeans per year. Most of the corn is shipped to markets in the Southeast, while a majority of the soybeans are sold to Louis Dreyfus in Claypool.

Rail service provides a vital service for the entire AgPlus system. But Mize is concerned about the impact a rail strike would have on the cooperative's bottom line, especially during the busy harvest season.

Regarding a possible rail strike, Mize said "it could affect us tremendously."

"We're in the peak of our season," he said. "We need to move product here over the next two to three months. We need to move product around and make room for the crop to continue to come in. These products, if they can't move —you know what happens—the backlog starts. It starts at the terminal areas and then it keeps working its way back and finally gets down to the small elevators like us."

Another concern is the low water level on the Mississippi River. Mize said the agriculture industry relies on inland waterways for the delivery of grain and crop inputs. However, a prolonged drought could affect the timely delivery of those products.

Washington can't do anything to affect the weather, but Banks said he wants to be a voice for small businesses dealing with rail, infrastructure and logistics challenges.

"Those are issues I hear about no matter what industry I'm talking to," he said. "It's important that when we start the new Congress in January that we're focused on issues that matter."

Banks said he is a co-sponsor of the Drive Safe Act, a bill that would allow 18-year-olds with CDL licenses to drive across the state lines.

"That's a common-sense solution to one of the issues that we face," Banks said.

Right now, Congress is in recess until after Election Day. During the break, Banks is traveling around the district to meet with constituents, like AgPlus. He's seeking his fourth term in Congress. He faces Gary Snyder, a Democrat, and Nathan Gotsch, an independent, in the Nov. 8 general election.

Banks said agriculture is a vital industry in Northeast Indiana, and he looks forward to helping businesses fix what's broken.

"The challenges that we face today are holding back progress," he said. "Hopefully we can solve those problems when we get some common sense back in control in Washington."

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