Addressing the Farm Labor Shortage Through Automation
American farmers are facing widespread labor shortages. The causes of these shortages are complex and multifaceted, but four key factors are an ageing agricultural workforce, decreased interest in farming, stricter immigration laws, and rising wages.
Farm labor shortages have not materialized overnight; they have been an issue for decades. In the second half of the 20th century, there was a 52% decline in hired farm workers. The problem worsens every year, and if the trend continues, it will seriously affect farm productivity, and potentially impact the world’s food supply.
Automated farming systems can help alleviate the pressures of the US farm labor shortage. Agtech can bring new efficiencies to farm systems, and drive overall productivity, without requiring that costs to soar in tandem. Read on to know more about how automation can provide a solution to the farm labor shortage crisis.
The Key Causes of the Farm Labor Shortage
In an article published by Farm Bureau in July 2019, Zippy Duval, President of the American Farm Bureau Federation said: “Farmers and ranchers in every state tell me that the shortage of labor is the greatest limiting factor on their farms.” In the intervening two years, the pressures have grown. The agricultural labor shortage has been increasingly felt nationwide by both small and large farms.
An article published by the The American Society of Mechanical Engineers in July 2020 revealed one key cause: Americans are not very interested in farm jobs. Arzum Akkas, a professor of operations and technology management at Boston University, recalled how “during the last recession, from 2007 to 2009, farmers in North Carolina tried hiring domestic laborers. There were 6,500 job openings. Only 163 people showed up, and only seven of them kept their jobs.”
The broader causes of farm labor shortage are complex, but key factors include:
An Ageing Farmer Population
A study conducted by AgAmerica Lending shows that current farmers are, on average, around 60 yrs old. Unfortunately, the workforce is unlikely to be replenished soon, because according to the National Young Farmers Coalition, younger people are showing little to no interest in farming.
A decreased interest in farming, combined with the ageing farmer population, is a recipe for labor shortages. The effects are compounded by the fact that old farmers tend to be less productive than their younger counterparts. As their workers age, farmers need fresh workers more and more – but finding them is very difficult.
Stricter Rules for Immigrant Farmers
According to the U.S. Department Of Agriculture, immigrant farm workers make up an estimated 73% of agriculture workers in the United States today. Unfortunately, foreign farmers are having a hard time securing a working visa to continue working in US fields. In recent years, getting H-2A visas has become increasingly difficult for foreign farmers, which has contributed to the US farm labor shortage.
The H-2A program is also extremely expensive, so it is hard to earn a profit while remaining sustainable. In an interview, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried believes that the best way to fix the H-2A process is to start with immigration reform. She said that:
“Agriculture needs to have a seat at the table when we’re discussing what to do on immigration as we move forward in the country. This needs to be something that we come together bi-partisan and recognize that our workforce, when it comes to agriculture, is drastically impacted by the decisions that we make on immigration and how we evolve the H-2A program.”
Increased Farmer Wages
As farms across the country are already having a hard time sourcing labor, the rising minimum wage has only added to the labor crisis. This is a particularly pressing issue in California, where the minimum wage will increase to $15 in 2023. California accounts for 60% of agriculture in the US, but an increase in labor costs will inevitably result in higher food costs for consumers (as well as increased food waste). This increase in production cost is one of the main reasons for the farm labor shortage.
As farm wages go up, farmers are left with few options. They are forced to find the financial room for further hiring, extend the capacity of their existing workers, increase their prices, or shift to automated processes in order to reduce labor costs.
Reluctance to Live in Rural Areas
According to International Labor Organization data, the percentage of people working in agriculture has decreased from 44% in 1991 to 26% in 2020. This is a rapid drop, and it is due in no small part to a demographic issue: fewer and fewer people are living close to farms.
Farm fields are usually located in the countryside, far away from the city. In a BBC article, Andrea Sosa, an agricultural researcher at Argentina’s National University of San Martin, said that the lack of a high standard of living often drives potential new farmers away from rural areas. Without nearby workers, it becomes very hard for farms to find workers.
How Can Automation Help Solve the Farm Labor Shortage?
Tom Nassif, the Western Growers Association President, said in an interview: “Without immigration reform and a useful guest worker program in the US, we need to try and develop ways to rely more on our own ingenuity and tech solutions rather than on the government.”
Autonomous tractors represent one of these “tech solutions.” The use of technology can help alleviate labor shortages by automating mundane tasks and leaving important jobs to skilled workers. A fleet of autonomous tractors can operate a huge field with minimal human supervision; in effect, this technology allows farmers to break the one man, one tractor paradigm. Advanced sensors can also help in soil analysis, seed planting accuracy and efficient land tilling.
With the use of autonomous tractors, farmer owners no longer have to worry about the ageing population, since operating a single unit autonomous tractor is easy and can be done remotely using any smart device. A single tractor operator can do the job of an entire group of tractor operators.
When fewer workers are required, the pressures of hiring labor vanish.
Automation and the Future of Farm Labor
As highlighted by Bloomberg, as U.S. farm income declines and farm labor becomes increasingly unreliable, the prospect of using robotics and automation on farms is becoming more and more attractive to farmers. And with good reason.
Contact Bear Flag today and know how we can help with your farm labor shortage.