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Sunday, 01 May 2016 12:18

West Michigan farmers, agribusinesses struggle to grow the labor force

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West Michigan farmers are struggling to attract all levels of talent, from laborers to farm managers. Experts in the field attribute the talent shortage to a number of factors, including a lack of college graduates willing to enter the industry. To combat this shortage, colleges such as Michigan State University are doing more to educate their students on the opportunities available to them in the agriculture sector. West Michigan farmers are struggling to attract all levels of talent, from laborers to farm managers. Experts in the field attribute the talent shortage to a number of factors, including a lack of college graduates willing to enter the industry. To combat this shortage, colleges such as Michigan State University are doing more to educate their students on the opportunities available to them in the agriculture sector. Courtesy Photo

While the challenge of finding talent makes headlines in the manufacturing and high-tech industries, similar struggles in West Michigan’s agricultural sector have the potential to hit even closer to home: the dinner table. 

The region’s agribusinesses, including vegetable and fruit growers, cattle farmers and other meat producers, navigate an increasingly constrained market for workers, for everything from low-skilled laborer positions all the way up to white-collar farm managers. 

“We’re having a difficult time finding talent,” said Dennis Heffron, owner of Grand Rapids-based Heffron Farms. “Often when they talk about agricultural labor, they talk about the bottom-of-the-ladder, entry-level jobs. There is a shortage there, but there’s also a shortage up the ladder, too — I’m talking about individuals that can run a $500,000 piece of equipment.”

Heffron Farms, which grow soybeans, wheat and hay and raises cattle, employs 25 workers during its peak season and plans to hire an additional eight workers in the next year. However, business owner Heffron joins the ranks of countless other farmers who remain uncertain about the agriculture industry’s ability to source low-skilled and college-educated labor. 

Between 2015 and 2025, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicts 57,900 job openings annually for college-educated workers in the food, agriculture, renewable natural resource or environment areas, according to a 2015 study conducted by the agency and Purdue University. At the same time, only 35,400 college graduates are available to fill those positions, according to the study. 

Sources largely attribute the lack of college graduates entering the agriculture industry to a perception issue. 

“What we hear from students, especially those who have opted not to go into food and agriculture, is that they believe the work associated with food and agriculture is hard, dirty work,” said Kelly Millenbah, associate dean for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University

A recent study commissioned by Arden Mills, Minn.-based Land O’Lakes Inc. found that out of 320 people surveyed between the ages of 18 and 35, only 9 percent had considered or were considering a career in agriculture. That compares to the 33 percent and 28 percent of participants who had considered or were considering a career in technology and health care, respectively.

To help cultivate more interest in MSU’s agriculture programs, the college is working to communicate to students about the opportunities available in the industry, Millenbah said. In particular, MSU plans to market its agricultural program by relating it to food, energy and environmental concerns. The university also realizes it needs to explain to students how the industry fits into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. 

Overall enrollment in MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources grew steadily in the last three years, reaching 4,892 students in 2016. 

But despite recent, growing interest in collegiate agriculture programs, Heffron notes that the students who graduate with those degrees often are quickly courted by the fertilizer, equipment and other related industries. 

“The problem is that they’re getting scarfed up like crazy by the fertilizer (companies) and all of those,” he said. “The job field out there in agriculture is growing very rapidly.” 

SOURCING THE LABORERS  

Along with other farmers in West Michigan and nationwide, Heffron is equally less optimistic about hiring the number of general laborers he needs to manage and harvest crops. That’s because a variety of factors have chipped away at labor pools farmers once tapped. 

On one hand, with unemployment continuing to edge downward across West Michigan and the state as a whole, the remaining unemployed workers either seem uninterested in re-entering the workforce or are simply untrainable, he said. 

“Those that are unemployed, the vast majority are unemployable,” Heffron said. “They don’t have the basic skills required, which are that you show up to work everyday and that you move.”

At the same time, the pool of migrant laborers who farmers have relied on for the decades has dried up as those workers left agriculture for more consistent work in industries such as construction, said Ed Robinette, owner of Grand Rapids-based Robinette’s Apple Haus & Winery

“People are not willing to travel to follow the agriculture jobs so that’s had a cascading effect on farm labor,” Robinette said. 

Robinette’s Apple Haus manages 30 acres of apples, peaches and cherries that it sells directly to consumers from its farm. 

MANAGING THE SHORTAGE

Agribusiness executives are taking a variety of approaches to compensate for a shrinking labor pool, including tapping into federal temporary worker programs and investing in automation technology.

As the traditional migrant labor pool shrinks, farm owners are increasingly relying on the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program, which allows foreign workers to enter the country for up to a year at a time to work in the industry. 

The number of H-2A visas increased about 23 percent from 2009 to 2013, when 74,192 were issued, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. 

While Robinette thinks more farmers are accessing the H-2A visa program, he said it includes a great deal of paperwork and can be too costly for many agribusinesses. Instead of the H-2A visa program, Robinette’s has begun to reshape its orchard layout to accommodate harvesting platform technology that eliminates some of the need for physical labor in picking fruit. While fully automated picking technology is still in developmental stages especially for fruit such as apples, Robinette doesn’t rule out the possibility of investing in additional machinery if the talent problem continues. 

“Maybe in the future we’ll have robots picking the fruit and we won’t need people to do it at all,” he said. “We have millions invested when it comes time to pick a crop and we can’t rely on chance.” 

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