A while back; probably too long ago because, let’s face it, life has a tendency to get in the way, we released Part I of our Agriculture is Broken rant series. We are finally getting around to Part II – Labor. We’ll do what we can to get the third and final part out much sooner than the Part I to Part II gap. No promises...
So, without further delay, let’s talk about why Labor in Agriculture is broken. Pretty much, it all boils down to incoming generations are finding it a lot of hard work for not a lot of reward, and it is disconnected from how they are seeing the world change. We can’t say we blame them. My oldest brother briefly worked for a lettuce farm in Yuma, AZ, and the migrant laborers would take bets on how long any non-migrant laborer would last doing the job. As my brother described it, it was truly back-breaking work for lower wages than pretty much every other industry. The laborers had to move through the field quickly, in front of the mechanized machines to get the job done. The days were long, but also seasonal.
What is happening now is that farmers are finding it difficult to find experienced labor each new season. This problem in the US is only increasing and has created the search for ways to help. Ganaz, a Seattle-based company, has been working on a platform to keep farms and seasonal labor in touch, in hopes of simplifying this process. Let’s not get started on the visa issue that exacerbates this problem, but it does underscore the problem as agriculture work is dependent on thousands of seasonal work visas.
Another, compounding issue we are seeing is younger generations that are leaving the multi-generational family farms for college and then not returning to take over the family farm. This is not something unique to the US; it is being seen on virtually every continent. About a year ago, we got back 200 customer surveys from the Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey area, where farmland owners were asking us if we had an option for them where they could have their land farmed without having to manage the business.
This is similar to the stories and conversations I had while in Afghanistan in 2017 and 2018, while there to look at how to potentially change the stale solutions the US and NATO countries continue to fund for Afghan agriculture. Simply put, the younger generations see it as low reward, high effort, and something that is not keeping pace with how the world and society are changing.
Another quick anecdote from here in Washington State. A couple of weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a city council member about a consult they received from one of the State Universities about urban farming. This council member was pretty appalled that the university’s less than diverse consulting team’s suggestion was to implement a program that effectively tried to convince minority millennials to forgo college to grow food in their communities. The kicker to this was many of the targets for this plan were those that were first generation in the family to be attending college. While not quite as drastic, this follows murmurs out of China about looking to sway younger generations in the farming communities to forgo college and stay to farm.
Lots of words and stories there. So, let’s recap what’s broken in agricultural labor:
1) High Effort-Low Reward – Basically, people all over the world both in current and upcoming generations are doing what they can to find work in any other industry because they are putting in more work for much smaller compensation, in comparison to other fields;
2) Farming isn’t Sexy – Let’s face it, farming isn’t sleek or high-tech, unless you work in a spaceship-esque lettuce factory. There aren’t that many of those. So, it doesn’t have the opportunities for social media connection, interest, shares, or even being able to mimic the lifestyles that people want to emulate; and
3) Generational Farmers are exiting – Basically, the newest generation that would have taken over the family farm is going to college and never looking back.
No matter how you slice it, this is bad for us. Food doesn’t pick itself and show up on our counter through voice command; yet…Maybe Star Trek – or Amazon - will have gotten it right someday, but that day isn’t today. My money's on Amazon.
Now, some of you will naturally think “robots are the answer…” This isn’t the right article to dive into this notion in detail, but we have two points for the time being: a) look at how slow robots in agriculture are and b) sure, let’s take away jobs that don’t require advanced technical degrees. Nothing could go wrong there /sarcasm.
Now, this wouldn’t be an article if there wasn’t some shameless plug in it; am I right? For those of you not surprised, at Revolution Agriculture, we are changing the way people engage with agricultural employment. The best part, our rates are set at living wage standards for each location we have Farmlets, and we consider our personnel employees, eliminating the shady practices we have seen from others in the startup ecosystem. To learn more about what we are doing; check us out on our social channels – fair warning, we do kinda suck at those – or the web, and then stay tuned for Part 3 of this series.