Spotlight – Farm Labor Shortages: Years in the Making

Spotlight – Farm Labor Shortages: Years in the Making

Article by Evan Lentz

For some time, concerns regarding the availability of reliable farm labor have reached the ears of UConn’s Risk Management team. When considering the vast range of risks that agricultural stakeholders face throughout the year, labor shortages may very well be the most detrimental to the industry in the long term. Even weather, which presents itself as a risk without any control measures, cannot compare to the impacts that large-scale labor shortages would have on agriculture and in turn the rest of the country. But how did we get to this point? Many people may wish to blame certain policies, citing the need for labor reform, others may point to the modernization of society and a general trend away from agrarian living. To understand how American agriculture has arrived at this juncture, one must examine the basic nature of the farming process, labor trends over the past 50 years, and challenges faced by the current farm labor force.

Farming at its most basic level is a biological process, more specifically a diverse group of biological processes with human and other influences (UC Davis). Whether the products of an operation are fruits and vegetables harvested from plants or the meat of animals, all agriculture is at the mercy of the biological processes that have evolved over time. These processes, such as growth and development, abide mainly by the rules encoded in their DNA. Many of these processes are slow, intricate, and beyond the scope of everyday farmers. When combined with other highly variable factors such as weather, these processes become somewhat cumbersome to predict or manage. The high variability and seasonality of agricultural operations present a fundamental issue in finding reliable labor. Set schedules are often nonexistent. Workload and the duration of jobs is determined not by farmers/employers but rather the above-mentioned biological factors. This is what distinguishes farm labor from most other sectors and vocations. The very nature of the business is highly variable, volatile, and require a particular type of worker – one who not only understands the job and its limitations, but one who incorporates the job into the entirety of their everyday lives. Therefore, the first limitation on farm labor is that there are only certain types of individuals who want to perform such work.

The second limitation on farm labor has come through the development and diversification of modern job markets. When looking at low-income or developing countries, the majority of their labor force is agricultural (UC Davis). As nations progress and developed technology, other types of jobs become available and draw workers away from agriculture. High-income countries not only have a more diverse job market, but many of these jobs now require more human investment to perform (UC Davis). Jobs in medicine or technology often require schooling or training which is up to the potential laborer to pursue. In contrast, 43% of the farm workforce lack high school diplomas or equivalencies (USDA, 2017). This need for more human investment in the job is often accompanied by increased wages. This is the incentive. People are willing to invest more of their time and money in a job that requires a different set of skills because they will in turn be able to earn more. As job markets continue to expand and progress, there are more options for those seeking employment. Where farming used to occupy the majority of our nation’s labor force, now only 11% of jobs reside in agriculture and related fields (USDA, 2017). There are simply more jobs that need doing.

Employment in Agriculture (Left); Age of Farm Laborers (Right) – USDA ERS


Due to the first two limitations which greatly influence those willing to pursue jobs in agriculture – first by appealing only to a certain type of individual and second by creating a wide range of job alternatives – most of the farm labor force has occupied a relatively narrow demographic for quite some time and this demographic is aging. The median age of the farm workforce is now at 40, up from 36 only ten years ago. Only 16% of farm workers are under the age of 25, suggesting a general disinterest in the industry by young people (USDA, 2017). Still, history demonstrates that where there is work that Americans won’t perform, immigrants will. Looking at the current farm workforce in America, 50% are unauthorized foreign-born individuals, mainly hailing from Mexico. These individuals have historically fallen under the migrant work category, with influxes during the growing season. However, this trend is also changing. The migrant farm workforce has now shifted to a semi-settled workforce (USDA, 2017). It appears that the need for more reliable farm labor has appealed to the migrant workforce enough that they are willing to seek permanent residences in the US. And yet, this demographic faces its own set of concerning limitations that continues to threaten the stability of farm labor in America. 

Without getting into the politics of immigration and labor, it is safe to say there are a number of barriers facing our farm workforce, which seems counter intuitive considering how much American agriculture relies on these individuals. To stabilize the farm workforce and stave off further labor shortages, there are three possible arenas to focus attention. The first would be to remove barriers that face the current migrant workforce, taking advantage of the fact that there are people willing to do the jobs that most Americans no longer wish to do. The second would be to incentivize younger Americans to participate in agriculture, through increased minimum wages and other benefits. The third option, which is not so far off, is eliminating the need for a farm workforce by automating agriculture on a large scale. Below are some links to more information on the farm labor issue. You may also contact your local Extension office.