Agricultural workforce trends changing

Gloria Hafemeister

Madison - Dairy farms, at least any farms that have expanded to bring in more family members and utilize more modern technology, are very dependent on a reliable workforce.

Dr. Thomas Moloney

Workers who were eager and willing to work on farms were, in the past, relatively easy to find. Now things are changing as labor laws spread across the nation, and consumer expectations climb.

“I have been doing human resource management and agricultural labor policy work for 30 years, and a lot of changes are ahead,” Dr. Tom Maloney of Cornell University told a large audience at World Dairy Expo.

“A number of external factors are going to affect how farmers attract good employees and how they manage them,” he added.

He presented what he sees as emerging workforce trends that will likely have a considerable impact on dairy managers, and he offered strategies to address the trends.

Maloney identified the first trend as continued pressure for immigration reform. He noted there is a guest worker system in place for vegetable growers but not for dairy. Farmers across the country are united on this issue and want legalized status for undocumented workers and a guest worker program that includes dairy.

With an election coming up soon, he pointed to the outward statements each candidate has made about immigration reform but cautioned that what they say and what they are actually able to do after the election may be two different things.

He suggested that one who is more influential about what stand the government takes is House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Another trend is a change in the migration patterns from Mexico to the United States.

“Fewer Mexicans are coming into the U.S., and drug cartels have made border crossings more dangerous,” he said. “In the past, they were able to find a guy to help them get across just by paying him something. Now they only way they can get across is if they carry drugs across for someone.”

Another reason for the change in migration patterns is that the Mexican economy has improved, so more are staying in their own country to work, Maloney said. Also, birth rates have gone down considerably in Mexico.

A third thing that has been occurring is increased activity by worker advocacy groups such as the Migrant Justice in Vermont. He said these groups are advocating for farm employees and, through consumers, are putting pressure on farms to document and prove how they are treating and what they are paying their workers.

Along those same lines, Maloney sees an increased trend among consumers, and in turn food companies, to require documentation by farms proving they are using farm employment practices they feel are fair to farm workers.

He pointed out that there have always been labor advocate groups, but the difference now is they are joining forces with food companies to put the pressure on.

While in most cases it will not result in changes in how employees are paid or treated, it will in the long term add to the cost of production because farms will be audited and will need to prove how they pay and treat their workers.

“Right now in corporate America, it’s in vogue to be green and sustainable,” Maloney said.

He sees robots and other technology as a way to respond to some of the labor issues, but those things do not always mean less labor on the farm. Consumers also like the idea of robots in the barn because animals are calmer and laborers are not being overworked with round-the-clock milking duties.

Technology, however, means labor must be skilled and trained in monitoring and operating the technology.

A final trend is more government red tape and the possibility of increased minimum wage.

“It isn’t only agriculture, but all businesses will find more government red tape in the future," Maloney said.

Planning important

For dairy producers, it will be important to think about these things when planning for the future.

“Farm wages are likely to rise faster than the rate of inflation,” he said. “Dairy employers will be under more pressure to comply with labor laws requiring more training and management time on compliance.”

Further, Maloney said there will be more pressure to improve worker housing, and labor costs will go up. Therefore, more farms will begin to look at mechanization and robots.

He said things like robots and mechanization will result in more milk sold per worker, and as that goes up, farms will likely get bigger because of training and efficiencies that can be developed on bigger farms.

“Efforts to make each employee more productive and valuable to the business will be essential,” he said. “There will be an increasing need for strategic human resource planning.

“Dairy managers will be challenged over the next 10 years. To retain the most qualified and productive employees will require compliance, competitive wages and the ability to tell a positive story about farm employment.”