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Critical Need for a Strategic Industry

Thursday, March 26, 2015

As agriculture faces the task of doubling production by 2050, one of the major challenges is developing a workforce for the 21st century. Many of us who grew up on farms in the last century remember a day when most farm work was done by family members. Indeed, it wasn’t so long ago that more than 60% of the U.S. agricultural labor force was comprised of family labor. Today 60% of farm labor is hired. Of that hired work force 75% are foreign-born and best estimates suggest that half are undocumented.

In July 2012 Farm Foundation and AGree cosponsored a symposium, The Future of Foreign-Born Labor in U.S. Agriculture. The symposium brought together farmers, worker advocates, and labor union representatives for a frank discussion of the needs of employers and workers, as well as policies needed to support the stable and legal workforce the food and agricultural economy needs to prosper in the 21st century. As you might expect, this diverse group of symposium participants didn’t agree on everything. There was, however, resounding agreement on one key point: current immigration policies have led to an increasingly broken agricultural labor market. (Farm Foundation and AGree are not alone in bringing attention to current immigration issues. The Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs has an Immigration Task Force exploring the impacts on Midwest urban and rural communities.)

Workforce issues are not just a problem of fruit and vegetable growers or nurserymen, all of whom rely heavily on hand labor. Today all of U.S. agriculture faces workforce challenges.  Dairy farmers, large and small, from coast-to-coast and border-to-border depend heavily on foreign-born, primarily Hispanic workers. Even many custom combining crews, who follow the grain harvest each summer and fall, are now recruited from abroad.

Across the board, today’s agriculture is increasingly dependent on hired labor. In an increasingly urbanized society most of the potential workers whom farmers might consider to fill jobs are not located near farms and ranches, nor do they have the experience or training required for the work. We have not built the institutional infrastructure to bridge these gaps in our agricultural labor markets. For the last century we relied heavily on the sons and daughters of farmers to provide the workforce for our food and agricultural system. Demographic reality tells us we will not be able to rely on this sector to meet the industry’s workforce needs in the next century.

For the foreseeable future there will be demand for foreign-born workers to help meet the workforce needs of a dynamic agriculture. If we are to do this in a way that meets the needs of farmers, while providing security and reasonable incomes for workers, we need to repair today’s broken system. Reform of immigration policies is undoubtedly an important part of the answer, but it is not the only piece. Labor market institutions that help to match workers with seasonal labor needs also need work. We need to strengthen workforce education and training to meet the needs of today’s increasingly technology-driven agriculture.

To meet the workforce challenges of the 21st century for an industry that is one of the strategic cores of the nation, attention must focus on workforce development. Farm Foundation identified Human Capital—investment in the people who work in agriculture—as one of the four critical areas of our Dialogue Project. Immigration reform—building systems that support the movement of workers across borders for temporary or permanent employment—is one key issue. Another is education—training the producers, engineers, economists, plant breeders, nutritionists, researchers, climatologists and policy leaders who will be tomorrow’s food and agriculture industry. Accomplishing these goals requires respect for the need to work, for the diversity and complexity of the work, for the individual worker, for paying a fair wage for work done in a safe environment, and for an industry that is the backbone of the nation.

Neilson Conklin Neilson Conklin (
President, Farm Foundation, NFP

View more posts by Neilson Conklin

2 comments on “Critical Need for a Strategic Industry”

  1. Neil Conklin
    Posted Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 12:07:45 PM

    Ed Kissam and Rick Mines have taken a detailed look at the post Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) dynamics of agricultural labor markets. Their findings lead them to a different perspective on the potential role of a guest worker program as part of the current effort to reform U.S. immigration policy. Whether you agree or not with their conclusions, their thoughtful analysis is well worth reading.

  2. Nathan Dorn
    Posted Friday, September 13, 2013 at 1:16:58 PM

    With the eventual rise of the minimum wage and the shortage of immigrant labor, agricultural companies will need to evaluate how they want to maintain viability. There are 3 choices as I see it, Increase Yeild, Increase Price or Decrease cost. If either of the first 2 were reasonably viable, the community would already be doing them.
    To decrease cost, there will need to be a new focus on improving human productivity and mechanization. This is not yet the complete robotics age, but more the 2nd Henry Ford era of agriculture where he built the Piquette plant with a sloped floor to make conveyance of the cars as they were built easier. We need to look for ways to make the human required tasks easier so we can increase human productivity. This will allow the farming industry to adapt and bring technical capacity into it without increasing prices to the consumers and exposing our markets to other countries.
    Using productivity through tools such as the GK Mercado Strawberry Harvest Machine made in Donald Oregon ( ) allows harvesters to pick more and make more money and reduces the cost of the strawberries. It also increases the total available labor pool for agriculture in the area.
    Call it reverse immigration reform if you want. Make the low paying, manual labor, agricultural jobs more productive. Increase potential earnings and attract a more permanent workforce. But do it while decreasing costs of the commodities to the consumer.

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.