People in the farming industry are aware that there are good and not-so-good years. There are times when a lot of farmers are ready to give a hand and times when it is difficult to find help.
That is why a growing number of farm operators are turning to technology to mitigate the adverse effects of farming labor shortages, which continue to be a persistent problem in the US agriculture industry up to this day. Farmers have also adapted to technology to revolutionize the way they grow and harvest their crops over the years.
Declining agricultural workforce: what are the causes?
The following lists the various reasons for the shrinkage in the country’s agricultural workforce:
1) A decline in interest in agriculture
Today’s average age of a farmer is 59.4 (as of 2022). Only a few young people (age 35 and under) are willing to enter agriculture and farming, and the number continues to decline due to the following factors:
- Rising land prices
- Farming machinery and equipment require a substantial investment.
- Unstable commodity prices
- Unpredictable weather and the growing frequency of weather phenomena (drought, flooding, etc.)
- Unequal work-life balance
- The physical demands of farming and the exposure to the elements (sun, rain, wind, cold, dirt, insects, etc.) turn many farmers away.
2) Rising wage demands
Farmers have been hiring labor as fewer families have become involved in farming. However, the number of hired hands has continued to decline. Fewer hired labor means an increase in wages that, in turn, leads to increased farming costs and, ultimately, the rising prices of commodities.
3) Increased access to education and job opportunities
Increased access to education is a good thing as it opens the gateway to better, higher-paying, and less labor-intensive jobs, primarily corporate ones. But access to education can also be a bad thing because it means a continued downtrend in the number of so-called “unskilled workers.” It has increasingly become difficult for farm operators to hire hands due to the other jobs available. As a result, the farming sector is struggling to compete with better-paying corporate and work-from-home jobs.
4) Stricter immigration policies
The H-2A program allows US employers, agents, or companies to hire foreign workers for short-time agricultural labor. However, the regulations are getting more stringent. In addition, there has been stiff competition for domestic farm workers and severe restrictions from the federal government on both documented and undocumented foreign workers since the Covid-19 pandemic.
5) Inefficient visa programs for seasonal workers
The H-2A visa program is time-consuming, costly, burdensome, and unworkable for many US employers and companies. Farming operators often receive their workers later than scheduled, resulting in crop loss and, ultimately, financial loss.
The pros and cons of the use of technology in agriculture
US farmers have been finding various ways to cushion the blow of the shrinking labor force. One of the ways is embracing technology.
More farmers have started adopting technological advancements that range from forecasting models and sensors to robotics and automation. But how good or efficient is technology in agricultural management? And how bad can it be, as well? We point out the pros and cons of technology in agriculture.
- Less human resources needed – Machines and automation work consistently faster and more efficiently than humans, and they can even work 24/7 without the need to take a break or time off. This leads to increased productivity on farms and reduced labor costs.
- More efficient and economical use of resources – Another advantage of technology in agriculture is its potential to enhance sustainability. For instance, precision agrotechnology run by drones and GPS can help farmers use their resources, like water, fertilizers, and pesticides, more economically and efficiently. As a result, there will be less waste of resources and environmental impact of farming practices.
- Reduced impact on the environment and natural ecosystems – Technology and automation also help reduce the use of harmful fertilizers and pesticides since they can apply these products with precision.
- Less runoff of chemicals into bodies of water – As technology is able to apply pesticides and fertilizers precisely, efficiently, and economically, there will be less chemical runoff into the rivers and groundwater.
- High crop productivity – The use of digital and analytic tools results in the improvement of crop yields, therefore reducing cost operations and increasing the farmers’ profits.
- High cost of maintenance – Technology can be quite costly to implement and maintain. For instance, the machinery needed to farm and harvest is expensive and can be difficult to maintain. Also, most farming equipment takes up a lot of space and can be challenging to transport and store.
- Uneducated farmers – Most farmers are illiterate, so they may have a hard time embracing technology and using modern machines. Also, it can take time for technology to process the information. Farmers are so busy tending to and harvesting their crops that they may not have the time or the willingness to process data.
- Environmental impact – When people rely too much on machines, they tend to be overused. Most machines are dependent on power and fuel. Overusing these machines can result in negative environmental consequences such as air and water pollution and soil degradation.
- Unemployment – As technology and automation bring significant savings on labor and improve the production of crop yields, it can lead to job losses in the farming community. But it’s not always the case, as some forms of technology may open new job opportunities for other people.
Technology and automation will always be a double-edged sword. They bring many benefits but can also lead to some drawbacks. But despite the concerns, it is clear that technology and automation hold a promising future in the farming and agriculture sector.
Farmers should recognize the potential but at the same time, carefully consider the risks that come with technology and automation. By weighing the pros and cons, farmers will be able to make more informed decisions about whether they should integrate technology and automation into their operations.