No farms, no food. But without an adequate workforce, American producers can’t raise the goods needed to feed a hungry nation.
Agriculture leaders discussed ways to overcome this challenge during the recent National Association of State Departments of Agriculture annual conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
The four-day event brought together several hundred people, including USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Carrie Castille, University of Tennessee senior vice chancellor and senior vice president, moderated a panel called “Public-Private Need for Careers in Agriculture.”
“I’m sure all of you have heard from growers and farmers in your state that, ‘I don’t have any labor. The H-2A program is too hard to use. Nobody understands us. Nobody understands who and what we need on our farms,’” said Maureen Torrey of Torrey Farms Inc., a large vegetable and dairy operation with 14,000 acres and 4,000 cows in western New York.
More than 56% of farms use the H-2A program, which allows foreign laborers to do temporary ag work such as fruit picking. Torrey’s farm employs 180 local people and brings in an additional 240 H-2A workers each year.
“Our biggest issue is that it’s only seasonal,” she said. “Workers can only be here 10 months. We need these people on our dairy farms full time. We need them in our packing sheds for apples, onions and potatoes, full time. Mushroom farmers in Pennsylvania need them.”
The House of Representatives has approved legislation that would extend the length of stay for H-2A and H-2B (nonagricultural) workers. “We need to have the Senate pass a similar bill,” Torrey said. “It’s very important to have partners. That’s the only way we get to be successful.”
In Pennsylvania, the state departments of agriculture and education have bridged a gap and are working closely to promote “Ag for All” to entice people from diverse backgrounds to consider farm-related careers.
“Agriculture needs to understand how curriculums work. Education needs to understand what the language is, what experiential learning and hands-on training is all about,” said Stephon Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission for Agriculture Education Excellence. “Agriculture is a people business. We want to ensure that everyone has access to this particular industry. We do a lot of development with youth organizations like Future Farmers of America.”
But it’s also important to engage teachers and industry leaders to ensure schools are doing what’s needed to provide agriculture with the people it needs.
Caelynn Prylo, dean for continuing education and workforce innovation at SUNY Adirondack Community College, said the state’s many community colleges do their best to meet workforce needs in their respective regions.
“Ag is driving the workforce in Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties,” Prylo said. “It’s a large economic driver as well. We work with farmers in our area and listen to them. We listen to county legislators to hear what programs are needed to support the ag industry.”
The State University of New York system has 88 undergraduate ag-related programs, from agricultural business to animal husbandry. SUNY Adirondack has its own on-campus farm and greenhouse operation. This benefits agricultural students and exposes students in other disciplines to the value of agriculture, too, Prylo said.
SUNY Adirondack has also adopted innovative ways to get more people interested in ag. A few years ago, for example, it hosted an “Arms to Farms” project to help military veterans pursue agricultural careers. The intensive weeklong program gave service members a chance to meet with farmers, see what opportunities exist and obtain training.
Ohio-based Great Lakes Cheese works with high schools, technical schools and universities in an effort to secure the workers it needs, said Mara Kamat, the company’s vice president of human resources. The firm is pursuing plans for a $550 million, state-of-the-art cheese manufacturing plant that will employ 350 people in Franklinville, just south of Buffalo.
The company received more than 1,000 applications for jobs at a newly expanded — 265,000 square feet — packaging facility in Abilene, Texas. “That’s a great position to be in,” Kamat said. “In New York, it’s not going to be like that. This plant will be a challenge because we don’t have accessibility to as broad of a workforce.”
A severe labor shortage is affecting many types of industries across New York, whose population has declined in recent years. Kamat outlined some creative steps Great Lakes Cheese has undertaken to attract and keep employees, not only in New York but also elsewhere in the U.S.
About 15 to 20 years ago, for example, there was a large influx of Hmong people from Thailand to Wisconsin. Great Lakes Cheese hired many who now fill hundreds of jobs, including second- and third-generation workers.
“So I’ve seen an incredible amount of loyalty and connection to the company,” Kamat said, adding that the company has begun replicating the idea with Afghan refugees. Some are highly educated and have filled “operator positions that are more technologically advanced, as well as supervisory roles,” she said.
The company is sensitive to their devout religious beliefs, so they provide time and space for prayer, and alternate shifts to allow for significant observances, she said.
Kamat also talked about an “Any Time Works” initiative Great Lakes Cheese adopted at its facilities to attract retirees, students and parents, all of whom perform valuable duties with flexible, part-time jobs.
But the family-owned company’s most important strategy is a highly successful employee stock ownership plan that gives workers a 20% stake in the business.
“That ownership culture really enables us to retain people for the long term,” she said. “A 20-year hourly employee making $40,000 likely has over $1 million in their ESOP account today. Employees own our business, so when they see opportunity for improvement they make that improvement. They go the extra mile because they know at the end of the day that’s money in their pocket, not just the company’s. It’s an incredibly powerful recruiting and retention tool. We are always looking for opportunities to make employees feel more connected.”
Post writes from eastern New York.