dairy workers
October 5, 2016

6 Ag Workforce Trends To Watch

Top Story  |   |  By: Anna-Lisa Laca

Labor issues are top of mind for producers. Immigration policy makes election headlines, and states like California make finding and keeping labor more difficult for producers.

This week at the World Dairy Expo, Tom Maloney of Cornell University Extension gave a seminar on trends facing the agriculture workforce. He says there are a few labor issues that will impact how we manage dairy farms.

“In the last year or two one of the things I’ve noticed is that it’s not just one issue, there are a number of things coming into play all at the same time,” Maloney says.

Consider how the following five workforce trends could affect your operation.

1. Continued Efforts to Reform U.S. Immigration Policy

There’s a sense of urgency around the country for immigration policy reform to aid the dairy industry. “There will be constant pressure on immigration policy until we get reform,” Maloney says. He says at the end of the day, agriculture groups hope for two things: legalizing undocumented workers and getting a guest program that is usable by dairy farmers. Legalization for undocumented workers doesn’t necessarily mean citizenship.

2. Migrations from Mexico to the U.S. Are Changing

According to Maloney, fewer Mexicans are coming to the U.S. for work. That is for many reasons, including increased drug cartel danger when crossing the border, increased immigration enforcement and both an improved economy in Mexico and declining birth rates in the country.

3. Increased Activity by Worker Advocacy Groups

Worker advocacy groups such as Worker Justice seek transparency in farm labor similarly to how the animal rights movement started. Maloney says these groups coordinate protests, demand improved safety and housing, disrupt farmer meetings and fund worker lawsuits against their employers. “This movement is not new, but we are seeing an increase at the moment,” he says.

4. Increased Consumer and Food Company Interest in Farm Employment Practices

Consumers and food companies are becoming more interested in employment environments on farms. One example Maloney gives is Whole Foods. The high-end grocery chain has a rating system for employment practices, which gives consumers an idea of whether or not employees working for a specific farm treat their employees well (or at least what Whole Foods Considers well). Maloney says companies like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream want higher wages, better housing, improved hours and mediation boards for dairy employees.

5. Increased Producer Interest in Mechanization and Robotics

As the labor issues facing dairy producers continue to pile up, Maloney says it’s only a matter of time before they start looking at mechanization and robotics. Many in the dairy industry have wondered how fast robotics will become ubiquitous. “Implementation depends on capital availability,” Maloney says. If farmers can’t afford robots, they will have no option but to use manual labor, he notes. In addition to increased efficiency, robots can allow smaller farms to expand their herds without expanding their workforce. Maloney says he looks forward to seeing a robotic rotary parlor be developed because it will have a big impact on labor efficiency and the ability for large farms to be able to look at robotics.

6. More Wage Increases, Government Oversight and Regulation

The government oversight that farmers face will not decline – in fact, it’s likely to increase. Maloney says the Department of Labor is increasing compliance on dairies. In addition, some states are facing collective bargaining for farmworkers, increased minimum wage and laws that require overtime pay for farm workers. “Regulation is not going away,” he says.