Updated: Jul 21
‘Help Wanted’ signs are reaching their full yield potential this time of year. An on-going labor shortage exists on most farms, packing sheds, and factories, intensifying during harvest season. Almost all industries are facing this challenge, but the agricultural labor shortage is more personal, impacting grocery shopping.
A recent study by Texas A&M found, when farmers can’t hire workers, expect to see a continued rise in inflation, increasing food prices, and more empty shelves at the grocery store.
This article sets aside immigration as a much larger federal issue and focuses on state efforts impacting the ag workforce. Less regulations, lower taxation, and avoiding agricultural overtime mandates will help farmers and ag businesses find and keep these valuable employees, which make harvest successful.
The shortage of agricultural labor is nothing new. Pre- and post-pandemic, farms struggled to find willing workers. From 1950 to 2000, hired farmworkers declined by 52% and family farmworkers declined by 73%. The stressful and strenuous nature of the job, volatility of commodity prices, high start-up costs, and immigration all contribute to fewer farmworkers. State efforts can also negatively impact the employment environment, as in the case of Washington.
Washington far outranks Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming in their number of agricultural workers. Unfortunately for Washington farmers, their state burdens them with more complications. Washington state requires multiple layers of regulation to hire H-2A workers, wastes tax dollars to hire uninterested local workers, and recently removed the agricultural overtime exemption. From 2002 to 2017, Washington saw the 2nd highest loss of agricultural employers in the nation, a 23% decrease.
How is this different than other western States?
Look at the border of Oregon and Idaho as an example. Oregon, following Washington’s lead, has enacted challenging ag labor legislation. The result urged some farms along the border to jump ship and move packing houses to the more friendly state of Idaho. Or even more sadly, small family farms gave up and the ground has been taken over by larger corporations that can more efficiently handle the staffing complexities. From 2002-2017, Oregon experienced a 6% loss in operations hiring workers, while Idaho increased their farm operations by 3%.
Western states should avoid the bad examples of Washington and Oregon and focus on policies which ease farmers’ burdens and improve employment opportunities for agricultural workers. Idaho is doing this by keeping regulations low, and Utah (1% decrease) is helping their citizens by lowering tax rates. All families will benefit from these efforts every shopping trip, experiencing lower prices and better stocked shelves.