The labor shortage has impacted industries across the United States as businesses continue to struggle filling vacancies.
No industry, though, has been hit harder than farming and agriculture.
According to Kevin Pope, a Mason City farmer, there was already a struggle in the industry to bring new workers into the field prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the pandemic and following nationwide labor shortage has made a problem that already existed exponentially worse.
“This issue has affected ag a long time before it affected anyone else,” Pope said. “That shortage has been around for years and years.”
“Over the last two years it (labor) seems to have been really, really short,” Ed Greiman, a feedlot owner from Garner, said.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, on the final work day of December there were 10.9 million job openings across the country, a number “little changed” from November.
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The bureau also reports that the 6.3 million hires in the month of December was a 333,000 decrease from the month of November.
A reason for the lack of employees coming through the door, according to Pope, is that the agriculture industry is something people are often born into, and it’s difficult to attract people from outside the industry to take a farm job.
“Every year there’s less and less farm kids, and that labor pool keeps getting smaller and smaller,” Pope said. “That makes it pretty tough.”
Pope said that the lack of people looking for employment has not only made hiring new employees on farms more difficult, it has also made retaining good employees more difficult as the competition has increased as the number of workers decreases.
Due to the lack of workforce, Pope said, farmers across Iowa are having to work longer and longer hours to keep up with the workload required to harvest crops during the peak farming seasons.
It also extends the timeline of how long it takes for a farm to do tasks; something that may have taken an hour with a full staff could take several hours due to the lack of employees to get the work done.
One of those struggling is Greiman, who said he is currently “very short-handed” at his feedlot.
“I would say in 2020 is when it was the worse,” Greiman said. “It’s gotten better in 2021 … but still, it’s been a problem
Even at Pope’s farm, where he said he’s been lucky to not have experienced the labor shortage too severely, he still has struggled to find part-time help throughout the pandemic.
Those problems even extend off the lot, according to Greiman. He struggles to find workers like truck drivers to take product to and from his farm. As a result, the cost of hiring a truck driver for a job has noticeably increased.
“Our rates to the West Coast and to the East Coast have almost doubled over the last year,” Greiman said.
With no end to the shortage of workers in sight, Pope does not anticipate the situation in agriculture improving in the near future.
“It’s going to continue to get worse,” Pope said. “No doubt.”
One of the biggest impacts of the decreasing workforce is that farming — and agriculture in general — is becoming more and more automated.
With farms lacking the proper people to get tasks done, farmers are turning to machines to fill the need and reduce the number of employees needed on a farm.
“That (the labor shortage) is why you’re continuously seeing larger equipment on the farm,” Pope said. “We’re not going to be able to fix the labor problem, so we have to find alternate ways to still get the work done.”
Pope projects that over the next few years more and more farmers will turn to autonomous machines to replace the lack of workers.
“It’s inevitable,” Pope said.
The sentiment is shared by Greiman, who says that spending several thousand dollars on equipment to replace even one position is worth it.
“Somebody might bring me a proposal of something that will cost $50,000 and say ‘oh you’re probably not going to approve that,'” Greiman said. “But if it replaces even one job I absolutely will.”
Greiman said the reason for this is that the combination of increasing difficulty in finding labor and increases in the cost of labor in general make a one-time purchase of $50,000 or more the obvious choice.
But regardless of the direction of farm labor, Pope has confidence in the industry staying afloat.
“We’ll be all right,” Pope said.
Zachary Dupont covers politics and business development for the Globe Gazette. You can reach him at 641-421-0533 or [email protected] Follow Zachary on Twitter at @ZachNDupont