The surprising truth about the agricultural labor shortage, as told by a California farmer

A lack of laborers in every sector of the supply chain puts California agriculture—and by extension, US agriculture—at risk of collapsing

It’s no secret that agriculture is experiencing a critical labor shortage, but what many people don’t realize is how far its impact ripples out.

According to a 2017 report from the California Farm Bureau Federation, 55 percent of responding farmers had experienced employee shortages despite ramped-up recruiting, increased pay and other incentives. This labor shortage extends across the U.S. but we feel it acutely here in California as our state leads the nation in cash receipts and exports of agricultural products.

Of course, none of this is news; headlines on the steep decline in agricultural laborers have published far and wide for years, particularly tied to the subject of migrant labor, which is a legitimate issue. But the story is actually much bigger than what’s happening (or not happening) in the fields:

A lack of laborers in every sector of the supply chain puts California agriculture—and by extension, US agriculture—at risk of collapsing.

Opportunity cost, opportunity lost

Let’s start in the field. Without laborers, obviously, a farmer like me isn’t able to harvest and complete orders, causing friction with my suppliers and ultimately with customers and consumers. When I’m not able to hit my processing time, I can’t get the opportunity back. We’re talking about perishable crops here.

But it’s not just harvest that’s affected by a lack of hands. At the beginning of the season, we train extensively on food safety, with weekly tailgate meetings as refreshers. If laborers leave, they take all of that food safety education with them, and anyone who takes their place needs to be trained, too, which takes time. And that leaves less time to complete orders.

Dying ecosystem

Trucking is also experiencing a labor shortage. Fewer trucks and truck drivers means longer lead times to get our product to customers. Cooling services—both physical coolers and people to run them—is seeing a steep decline in availability as well.

Unfortunately this trend is expanding out to other roles beyond what we consider as ‘agriculture jobs’. Across the overall business, positions need to be filled, including accountants to perform basic AR and AP, as well as IT to keep systems runnings.

Brutal business

Agriculture is a low-margin, high-stress, seven-days-a-week business. At Spinaca, the folks I work with start at 5 AM and are still taking calls at midnight. That kind of grind wears on a person. What people don’t realize is once we plant a seed in the ground, we’re on the clock. Once it’s grown, the window is incredibly small for harvesting, packing, shipping and selling.

Unlike a hammer sold in a hardware store, a bunch of broccoli can’t sit on the shelf until someone wants to buy it. That hard deadline stresses some people to elect to not work in agriculture and opt for higher-paying tech jobs just 40 minutes up the road from our farm (looking at you, Silicon Valley).

Retaining good employees is also a constant challenge for us, but I’m very lucky to have found some really sharp folks who have hung in to the agriculture life and help build Spinaca Farms. I’m thankful for them every single day.

Automate or die

Advancements in technology may be the answer to both filling manual labor roles and retaining those with technical chops.

When it comes to cultivation, harvest and packing automation, the technology needs to come in at the level of skill and dexterity required of manual laborers, which means we have a long way to go. In some areas, we need soft robotics for crops like strawberries and apples to keep from bruising them, because most consumers buy their products visually, instead of based on taste. (Case in point: a red tomato that tastes like cardboard will almost always get bought before a green tomato that tastes awesome.)

There are programs out there that are very close with the soft robotics, but not ready to scale yet. Some are at the level of horse-and-buggy and some are at that of a Model T. But I already see tremendous potential in agriculture’s use of robotics for harvesting, as well as drones and field apps for mapping and reporting water and nutrient usage. If we can leverage those technologies, we may be able to require less manual labor and keep more technically-minded employees in agriculture.

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of all invention. By automating on the production side, we should be able to reduce our production costs, thereby hitting consumers’ preferred price point while still making a profit and ultimately staying in business.

However, the expense is huge to automate upfront making it tough for a small farmer to make the switch. But at this point we don’t have a choice, we know if we don’t it will be death by a thousand cuts.


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