The U.S. agriculture industry is currently in the midst of a major labor shortage that has some farmers concerned about the future of their operations. In California alone, nearly 56% of farmers have had issues filling their employee rosters at some point in the past five years, according to a 2019 survey from the California Farm Bureau Federation. This lack of staff means that many greenhouses and farms, especially those that rely on laborers during harvest season, are at a high risk of losing crops and revenue because they’re unable to keep up with their present workload. If left unresolved, agricultural businesses may have to scale back their production to avoid substantial losses.
What’s Driving the Labor Shortage?
Historically, a large portion of workers in the agricultural and greenhouse industries have come from outside the U.S., often through temporary work programs like H-2A. Research from New American Economy found that in 2014, more than half of all employed farmhands were immigrants, totaling roughly 500,000 workers. More recently, however, the number of new immigrants coming into the country for agriculture jobs has declined by roughly 75%. This has not only made it difficult for many farmers to maintain a stable workforce, it has also prevented them from expanding their businesses.
Another key factor is that the agricultural workforce is rapidly aging, and many millenial and Gen Z job seekers simply aren’t interested in pursuing farmhand positions. One study conducted by Farmworker Justice found that the average age of U.S. agricultural workers is 38, with 24% falling between 35 and 44, and 14% aged 55 or older – in 2001, just 19% of farmworkers were over the age of 45 and the vast majority (61%) were under 34. Without healthy young workers to fill these open positions, agriculture businesses will likely continue to see labor shortages in the years to come.
Indoor farming operations are also facing similar challenges, with small garden centers and greenhouse nurseries the hardest hit. This is because many local greenhouse businesses rely on small workforces to plant, nurture and harvest their plants. Even a single open position can leave garden centers understaffed, as many business owners can’t afford to import foreign-born farmhands through H-2A and similar programs. In response, many agricultural businesses are starting to offer more competitive compensation and employee benefits to help retain top staff, according to a CFBF survey. These efforts include:
- Raising wages for full-time, part-time and seasonal employees (86%)
- Hiring a farm labor contractor to locate and onboard qualified candidates (61%)
- Integrating farming and greenhouse automation tools (56%)
- Adjusting cultivation practices and harvest timelines (37%)
The present labor shortage is also driving mid-to-large-sized farmers and greenhouse businesses to consider hiring more workers through the H-2A agricultural visa program. Currently, only 6% of surveyed farmers report having enrolled in the program, per the CFBF study, despite offering a clear remedy to the ongoing labor shortage issue.
Understanding the H-2A Visa Program
The H-2A agricultural visa program allows employers to bring non-immigrant foreign workers into the U.S. on a temporary basis, usually for up to 10 months at a time. The goal of the program is to help farmers, greenhouses and garden centers maintain a stable workforce if they can’t find willing, qualified applicants in their local area. All employment through H-2A is based on seasonal work and is tied to a certain time of year (harvest season), a certain event (droughts, wildfires, etc.) or an ongoing pattern (short annual growing cycles), according to the United States Department of Labor. To qualify for the program, employers must meet the following criteria:
- There aren’t “sufficient able, willing and qualified U.S. workers available”: To be considered for an H-2A visa, there must be a lack of available U.S. workers applying for the open position an employer is trying to fill. If there is an abundance of local job seekers or citizens interested in the role, farmers and greenhouses must hire them before enrolling in the H-2A program.
- Employment of H-2A workers cannot negatively impact “similarly employed U.S. workers”: Bringing on nonimmigrant foreign workers must not adversely affect the wages or conditions of U.S.-born agricultural employees. For example, if a greenhouse business were to onboard several H-2A workers, they would not be able to limit the hours or reduce wages for their native staff.
Beyond these core qualifications, there are many other important guidelines for enrolling in the H-2A visa program, including wage minimums, transportation and housing requirements, and more. Additionally, the Department of Labor has recently proposed a series of H-2A updates that could reshape the program from the ground up, according to the Economic Policy Institute. While it’s still unclear how the changes will impact farms, greenhouses and garden centers in the years ahead, the labor shortages this visa program is intended to solve aren’t going anywhere.