Tips to Help Overcome Harvest Labor Shortages

Harvest can be especially challenging when it comes to finding labor. ( REUTERS/Lucas Jackson )

With harvest quickly approaching it’s time to make sure you have the labor you need to get the crop out of the field. Labor shortages are growing across much of the U.S. in the agricultural industry, plan ahead to make sure you’re not in a bind in a few short months.

“We have trouble finding reliable labor—and we really don’t know where to go to find it,” says Tom Dull, corn, soybean, pumpkin and Christmas tree farmer who lives 30 minutes north of Indianapolis. “The past couple years we’ve been short on employees.”

Good employees can be hard to come by, especially in low population, rural communities. If you’re considering foreign laborers on H-2A, make sure you understand what you have to do to comply. In addition, there could be domestic laborers available—you just need to know where to look.

“There are a number of contractors working to bring foreign labor to the U.S. for custom harvesting—a lot of those workers are under H-2A visas,” says Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, a national trade association focused on ag labor issues. “Some are from Canada, South Africa, the former Baltic states, to name a few, to assist in corn, soybean and wheat harvest.”

If you want to hire foreign laborers, act quickly. Employees will be screened through U.S. Homeland Security and need to file and receive their visa. In addition, you’ll need to prepare your farm to meet H-2A requirements in time for harvest.

“Wages must be at least the adverse effective wage rate, which is published annually, employees must meet a guaranteed number of hours, employers provide transportation in and out of the country and employee housing must be provided by the employer,” Marsh advises. “Agents can provide you with information to make sure you’re compliant—but working with agents has a fee, too.”

A new bill could replace the H-2A visa, which is specifically for seasonal labor. The “Ag and Legal Workforce Act” (H.R. 6417) would allow 450,000 foreign workers to enter the U.S. under an H-2C visa and stay for up to three years. The number of visas would automatically increase any year the cap is reached, according to the National Pork Producers Council, one of more than 200 ag organizations that support this bill.

Your community could be ripe with employees, too, you just need to know where to look. “The most recent employee I hired had just retired and was looking to help a farmer,” Dull says. “He can drive a truck and is a fair mechanic, but he doesn’t want to work full time. So, he just helps in the busy season.”

Retired farmers are another gold mine of good employees, he adds. In both cases, however, these employees tend to prefer part-time work, which can put Dull in a bind during harvest.

“We have to be flexible, fortunately I don’t get stressed very easily,” Dull says. “We have some guys who will come out after working a job in town, so I put in long days, but it gets the job done.”

Just south, Quint Pottinger of New Haven Kentucky looks to U.S. military veterans. A short 45-minutes from Fort Knox, his farm provides opportunities for veterans who aren’t ready to completely slow down yet.

“We’ve been really lucky finding some retiring veterans looking for something to do,” Pottinger told AgriTalk host Chip Flory. “They’re part time, so we can actually hire part time help and they’re good help. They show up every day and they’re not asking for a lot of money and don’t need health insurance.”

Whether you look to foreign labor or domestic, make sure you’re set up for success this harvest season. The crop doesn’t wait for you to find employees, and you could leave bushels in the field if you’re not ready.