Anyone working in farming understands that there are good and not-so-good years. They know some years there will be plenty of farmhands to help, and some years finding help is difficult. Many farmers are looking to technology to avoid the issues of having enough labor force to help with agriculture. This article will help you understand issues related to how technology may be a solution.
Shortage of farming labor in the United States
Farming and agriculture impact every society in a lot of ways. They provide the food we need to survive, support our livelihood, and provide us with jobs. Farming and agriculture can help reduce poverty, increase incomes, improve food security, and build a more robust economy through trade.
But more than the tangible benefits, farming and agriculture are tied to a nation's identity and culture. And agriculture in the United States is no different. It remains a cherished part of the American identity and is central to preserving the nation's ideals of developing a way of life.
The agriculture and farming industry remains a significant part of the US economy. In 2020, agriculture (and related industries like forestry and aquaculture) contributed over $175 billion to US GDP and provided jobs for more than 2.3 million people.
However, labor shortages have continued to be a persistent problem that haunts farmers. According to the National Agriculture Statistical Service's Farm Labor Survey (NASS FLS), self-employed and family farm workers declined by 73% from 1950 to 2000.
And the lack of labor needed to keep up with the demand for food and other products was even more impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Social distancing and health restrictions meant farmers, ranchers, and other growers struggled to find people to help them harvest crops, raise livestock, poultry, and fish, and process, transport, and market them to consumers. As a result, many farmlands were abandoned. Storage facilities and processing plants across the country were also shut down. Travel lockdowns in other countries prevented foreign workers from coming to the US and did not help the labor shortage problem.
Outside of the effects of the pandemic, another factor that has been hurting the country's agricultural labor market is immigration policies, which further limit the available workforce pool. These policies have become more stringent, costly, and cumbersome for many American farming employers and operators.
We explore the labor shortage issue in the US agriculture and farming sector and the use of technology to address such shortage.
History of farm labor
Although farming employment has significantly decreased in numbers in the United States over the centuries, it has an essential role in the country's economy.
For such a small percentage, the agricultural labor force can provide the most essential item – food. Other than food for domestic consumption, the US also exports food to other countries. This only testifies to the incredible skill of productivity of the country's agriculture workforce.
Labor shortages have long been an issue in the US agriculture sector. By the 1850s, demand for farming production rose so that several employment agencies brought in immigrants from various countries to meet the demand. Several African and European immigrants arrived on East Coast to join the seasonal labor force. Employers began hiring Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants on the West Coast. After the Civil War, the seasonal need was joined by many formerly enslaved people, poor Anglos, and Native Americans.
Fast forward to the World War II era. Due to labor shortages because of the war, the United States and Mexico signed the Bracero Agreement in 1943, allowing farm laborers to be imported from Mexico to the US. The program ultimately brought around five million Mexican laborers.
Although initially devised to meet WWII shortages, the Bracero program continued until the early 1960s. Following the program's termination, farm employers turn to the H-2 non-immigrant program for their labor needs. This program, now known as the H-2A program, continues up to the present.
Around the same time, the African-American farm labor force dispersed into other industries to look for better job opportunities, leading to a shortage of workers in the fields.
By the 1960s and 1970s, the agricultural workforce was comprised mainly of Latinos. Filipino and Mexican farm laborers established workers' rights organizations around labor issues such as low wages and poor working conditions.
The Delano Grape Strike, organized by primarily Filipino farm workers in the 1960s, brought unprecedented partnership between Filipino and Mexican farm workers to unionize farm labor. The United Farm Workers (UFW) established the groundwork for other farm organizations and unions in the following decades.
Today, most farm workers in the US consist of immigrants from Latin America, with over 60% of them undocumented. The workers are predominantly Mexican, while others are African-Americans and immigrants from Central America and Asia.
The agricultural industry claims labor shortage. However, farm labor advocates counter that had wages and overall working conditions been acceptable, this shortage would not exist.
Causes for the shortage of labor in recent half-decade
Why are we running out of farmers? The following lists the various reasons for the shrinkage in the country's agricultural workforce:
1) A decline in interest in agriculture
Today, the average age of a farmer is 59.4 (as of 2022). Very few people aged 35 and under are willing to enter agriculture due to many factors:
- Increasing land prices
- Substantial initial investment cost of machinery and agricultural technology
- Unpredictable weather and increases in extreme weather phenomena (such as drought and flooding)
- Unstable commodity prices
- Unequal work-life balance
- Extensive physical work and prolonged exposure to elements (sun, rain, winds, cold, dirt, etc.)
2) Increase in farm labor wages
We mention the NASS FLS report of the 73% decrease in self-employed and family farm workers from 1950 to 2000 again. Farmers have been hiring labor as fewer families have become involved in farming. However, the number of hired hands declined by 52% during the same period. The lack of hired labor translates into an increase in labor wages, which, in turn, increases farming costs and, ultimately, the rising prices of commodities.
In 2018, the farming industry experienced a 7% decline in hired labor and a 5% increase in wages.
3) Increased access to education and job opportunities
The rise of global literacy can be a double-edged sword. The number of people getting postgraduate degrees and their prospects for less labor-intensive careers that offer higher pay increases. Work-at-home job opportunities have become available in this online and social media era.
However, increased access to education and better job opportunities also means a decline in the number of "unskilled laborers." It has become increasingly difficult for employers to find farm hands due to the other jobs available, and even increasing hourly wages won't help much. As a result, the agriculture sector is struggling to compete with better-paying corporate and work-at-home jobs.
4) Stricter immigration and deportation policies
Nearly half of all people who work on farms are undocumented immigrants, around 25% of them Mexicans.
However, more stringent deportation policies and tighter border control have led to a significant decline in undocumented immigrants, further contributing to the decline of the agricultural workforce.
5) Visa program inefficiencies
The H-2A visa program establishes a means for American agricultural employers and operators who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers, allowing them to hire foreign laborers to do temporary agrarian work.
The H-2A was created in 1986 under the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) to allow for an uncapped number of temporary farming laborers. From 16,000 H-2A visas issued in 1997, they quadrupled to around 89,000.
However, the process is time-consuming, costly, cumbersome, and unworkable for many employers. Farmers and operators who have gone through the process often receive their workers late, resulting in crop loss. The average number of days late H-2A workers arrive when delayed is 22.
The Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) describes the minimum wage determined by the US Department of Labor and other regulatory bodies. The AEWR requires farm employers to pay H-2A workers the highest prevailing hourly rate, which is often higher than the hourly wage that domestic farm workers receive.
The impact of farm labor shortage
As farmers and operators in the US struggle to find laborers to fill their needs and wages increase faster, they are losing a competitive advantage over other countries. In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables Americans consume that are imported.
Even though many factors play into the importation of products, labor shortages in agriculture alone resulted in 27% of the market share decline experienced by farm owners from 1998 to 2000 and 2012 to 2012. On the other hand, there was a 73.9 increase in imported fruits and vegetables in the US during those same periods.
Had farmers been able to keep up with the production, 89,300 jobs would have been created in 2012 and generated almost $5 billion in annual farm revenue.
Farmers in the US are discovering and adopting ways to cope with the labor shortage:
- Perks and benefits packages to attract new farmers – Farmers and operators are financing to buy farm equipment, working allowances, subsidized housing, profit-sharing bonuses, and other perks to entice more people into the agriculture business and retain current staff.
- Scaling back agricultural operations and monetizing land – Many farmers are scaling down their farm operations and leasing out a portion of their land to offset increasing labor costs.
- Adopting technology – More farmers have begun integrating agrotechnologies, such as sensors, forecasting models, robotics, automation, and crop health monitoring systems. Although they require a high initial investment, these technologies have proven efficient in managing farms. They provide many benefits, such as:
Controlled spray techniques
One of the secrets of healthy and abundant crops lies in an even, specific, and efficient droplet distribution, whether you're applying water, liquid fertilizers, or pesticides.
History of spraying on the farm
An entrepreneur named Ray Hagie invented the world's first high-clearance, self-propelled crop sprayer in 1947. His invention soon became a breakthrough that revolutionized the agriculture industry. During the 1960s, Hagie developed the world's first rear-wheel drive sprayer, the first to feature a front-mounted spray boom.
Between 1968 and 1980, Hagie did some modifications, including adding bigger tanks to carry water and better-performing suspension systems. This model also had an optional cab for the operators to drive in. This design is still in use today.
Since then, several manufacturers have developed their crop sprayers, including hand-held and aerial sprayers for trucks, ATVs, and UTVs.
The use of technology for orchards and vineyards
Most conventional spraying techniques today use a hydraulic nozzle. This technique breaks up the liquid and squirts it under pressure through a hole. This application is inefficient because it distributes the spray liquid somewhat unevenly, resulting in droplets of varying sizes that may drift or evaporate before reaching their target.
Hydraulic spraying produces droplets that are too large. This may be a problem, especially when applying pesticides or fertilizers, as these large droplets may concentrate too much of the pesticide or fertilizer in one spot.
The controlled droplet application (CDA) technology
In contrast to the hydraulic spraying technique, the controlled droplet application (CDA) technology provides small and uniform droplets and contains them within domes or shrouds. Instead of hydraulic pressure, the CDA uses centrifugal force to form spray droplets. It results in optimum sizes of spray droplets for a particular application.
The centrifugal force is supplied by a spinning disc or cup powered by a small electric motor that helps break up the liquid evenly. The droplets produced by the CDA technology are relatively uniform in size, enabling the applicator to control the droplet size. The spinning cup or disc sprayers evenly distribute water or other liquid solution, ensuring the most optimum coverage.
- Uniform droplet size and even droplet distribution produce better spraying results.
- The reduced spray volume means less water or liquid solution is needed to spray, translating into cost savings.
- Improved target coverage and spray droplet retention
- Faster and more efficient spraying operation
- The amount of time and effort to spray is significantly reduced
- Reduced contamination risk
- Reduced environmental impact
- Increased productivity
If you're looking for a sprayer that uses CDA technology, Enviromist (Micron) is one of the world's leading manufacturers of specialist sprayers for a wide array of applications. It also offers weed control equipment.
Being the pioneers of CDA technology, Enviromist boasts decades of experience in specialist low-volume and hooded sprayers. It offers a comprehensive range of products, such as hand-held, vehicle, and aircraft-mounted sprayers, as well as weed wipers and applicators. Environmist's products can be used in virtually every situation, from agricultural fields to orchards to landscaping.
Rising need for efficiency in technology
Agriculture is one of the world's oldest industries. However, it should embrace a digital, connectivity-laden transformation to overcome the increasing demand for food and some of its most common challenges, such as labor shortages.
History of technology use on the farm
Agricultural technology has seen a dramatic evolution for over 10,000 years, from simple hand tools to mechanical equipment to robotics being employed by farmers today.
During the dawn of humanity, people used simple tools such as soil-scratching sticks and moved to use scythes, hoes, and wooden, animal-drawn plows. As the centuries marched on, humans moved from stone sickles to iron plows, increasing their ability to harvest generous quantities of grain.
Several centuries later, the invention of other agricultural machines, such as the seed drill, cotton gin, agricultural steam engines, gasoline-powered tractors, and combine harvesters, increased farming efficiency and took most of the originally labor-intensive jobs.
In recent years, high-tech mechanization was integrated to support or even take over human capabilities such as sensing, cognition, decision-making, and eye-hand coordination to perform tasks more precisely or more complex operations, like selective harvesting.
Technology such as sensors, computer vision, driverless tractors, and artificial intelligence are required to address the continuous challenges and facilitate considerable progress in this field.
The benefits of using technology while farming
One of the ways that growers and operators do to adapt to changes in the labor force in agriculture is the use of new technology.
Recent technological advancements have dramatically changed modern farming and agriculture. From temperature and moisture sensors and GPS to robotics, such sophisticated technologies can help reduce physical labor, cut down costs, and boost crop production and profits. These safe technologies allow operators to align with an environmental compliance framework.
Other benefits of using technology in agriculture include:
- Less human resources required
- More economical use of water, fertilizers, and pesticides, which in turn lowers the cost of food
- Reduced impact on the environment and natural ecosystems
- Less runoff of chemicals into groundwater, streams, rivers, and other bodies of water
- Higher crop productivity.
Weeds are like "pests" in the plant kingdom. They compete with agricultural plants for light, water, and nutrients. When weeds swarm over agricultural fields, they can starve important plants growing in them, robbing them of nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. The loss of nutrients can make crop plants more prone to insect infestation and diseases.
Controlling weeds can be very challenging. Some weeds have shallow roots, but others have deep perennial roots or roots that sprout again. Most weeds spread very quickly, which can be attributed to their fast-germinating seeds and robust growth. Some weeds are prickly, while others are toxic, which makes controlling them a lot trickier.
Fortunately, the once-arduous task of controlling weeds is now easier, thanks to technological advancements such as mechanical weeding.
History and Importance of Weeding
The domestication of wild plants to become beneficial crops began agriculture. Weeds were the accompanying domestication of undesirable plants along with the crops in the same location. So, weed management's history is co-existent with agriculture's history.
For many centuries, weed control technology was mainly related to tillage and the seedbed preparation, crop-growing, and pasturing of abundantly planted crops.
Along with the advancement of agricultural technology during the Roman era and then the Middle Ages was accompanied by the development of weeding technology, helping to reduce the weeds and replacing weeding by hand.
Fast forward to the 20th century, the history of weed control technology is tied to the development of herbicides, which were used to control weeds that kill important plant crops. The first herbicides consisted of inorganic salts like sodium chloride, arsenic salts, sodium chlorate, and carbon bisulfate as a fumigant. Various oils, inorganic acids, and solvents were applied as burn-down herbicides. These chemicals were utilized at what now would be incredible rates. They were toxic, and some of them posed fire hazards.
Tools and equipment are used to stop the spread of weeds as an alternative to toxic herbicides. Farmers implement advanced weeding equipment from the earliest tools, such as hand-held cultivators, rakes, hoes, mechanical and motorized weeders, and autonomous weeding machines, enabling quick and efficient weeding.
The benefits and savings of mechanical weeding
Mechanical weeding provides numerous benefits, including:
- It does not pollute the environment
- It reduces the need for water, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides
- It takes guessing out of farming and weeding
- It increases weed control efficiency
- It increases work safety
- It spots the symptoms of plant diseases, soil degradation, and food waste, among others
- It improves crop productivity
- It requires no special skills
- It significantly reduces the amount of physical labor
The expertise of farm managers in growing technology
History of farm management and growing technology
Farm management involves:
- Creating and implementing decisions in organizing.
- Maintaining a farm for optimum production and profit.
Farm management is extremely important in many ways, i.e., bridging short-term financial challenges while ensuring the farm's economic future.
Professional farm management services can include:
- Dealing with the marketing of commodities.
- Reducing market risks.
- Accounting for the farm's profits and expenses.
Research has shown that large farms produce crops more efficiently than small farms. As technology advances, the farms that are managed most efficiently will likely become bigger and more productive.
Large farms can cut down costs in many ways:
- Negotiate prices on seed, fertilizer, crop chemicals, machinery, petroleum products, and repair services.
- Sell their products to a processing company for a whole year's production of a given quantity and quality for a specific future date, therefore commanding higher prices.
- The elimination of the middleman.
- Production, handling, and processing can be scheduled ahead of time for greater efficiency.
- Large farms also invest less in equipment and buildings per crop acre.
Substitution of capital for labor is a farm management trend especially prevalent in the United States. In 1940, it accounted for 29%, labor 54%, and land 17% of farm inputs. However, by 1976, capital comprised 62%, labor 16%, and land 22% of farm inputs.
Capital takes the place of labor in some examples:
- Large machines and equipment do the work of several people using smaller tools
- Chemicals replace hoes and scythes to control weeds
- Milking parlors, bulk tanks, and pipelines take the place of hand-milking operations
- Automated sprinklers replace traditional irrigation
These changes in agriculture in the US are, to a large extent, a product of a revolution in financial management. Up to the 1930s, little external capital was required to finance a farming operation. But today, capital investment has dramatically increased. Farmers acquire their production goods and services – land, seeds, fertilizers, and other essentials – in various ways.
Renting land is another way. Compared to the earlier days when owning land was seen as ideal, renting farmland has become a widely accepted farm management practice. Farmers see renting land as a way to operate on a much bigger scale than it would be under ownership.
Renting machinery has also become a usual practice for farmers to obtain the services of equipment too expensive to be purchased and owned. The leasing of livestock has also been receiving attention.
Many farms also practice diversification when they branch out from traditional farming by introducing other products or activities that can bring in more profit. There are two types of farm diversification:
- Horizontal diversification – Production of more than one crop for sale.
- Vertical diversification – The handling by farms of raw products after harvesting (processing, packaging, transporting, and even selling at retail) that could have been done elsewhere.
The educational requirements for farm technology
Typically, you can obtain any of the three bachelor's degrees:
- Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Technology
- Agricultural Operations
- Agricultural and Environmental Technology
Each degree program usually takes four years to complete, and some of them may have specialization in environment, business, management, or any other area.
As demand for agricultural production continues to rise, farms are looking for other ways to make up for the lack of labor and meet those demands. The use of advanced machinery and equipment, substituting labor for capital, diversification of goods and services, and the adoption of new technology will help farmers and operators help meet food demand sustainably.