How many of us now encourage our children to find a career in crop or livestock production? For most the cultural narrative has been for generations, get a better job than farming and ranching.
Given this chasm between “good jobs” and agriculture jobs, Boulder County farmers are feeling the pinch of recruiting and retaining a quality workforce.
This winter, I surveyed Boulder County farmers to better quantify the issues. For those of you passionate about the future of local food, we’ve got work to do to ensure a viable farm workforce.
As you might guess, farms that are heavily dependent on hand work versus machine work are more vulnerable here. Think production and harvest of fruit, vegetables, herbs, flowers and the like. USDA calls these specialty crops.
Filtering for those 14 specialty crops respondents, 59 percent of agriculture employers indicate the level of business risk regarding recruiting and retaining quality farm workers is high to extremely high while 41 percent indicate it is a moderate risk. Not surprisingly, housing for farm workers is regarded as a high or an extreme business risk for 63 percent of employers responding and 56 percent of agriculture employers indicate their workforce cannot find affordable housing in Boulder County with 87 percent noting that $800 per month is likely the maximum rent their farm workers can afford to pay based on farm wages.
Employers are trying to provide solutions including off-farm housing (25 percent) and on-farm housing (44 percent). Some are not providing on-farm housing but want to (19 percent). Of those that do provide on-farm housing, 70 percent want to use tiny homes and 20 percent are not sure about tiny homes but are interested. Nineteen percent of agriculture employers are not providing off-farm housing but want to and 93 percent believe rent subsidies for farm workers is a notable solution to their affordable housing challenges.
And you ask, why not pay farm workers more? While 74 percent report that entry level farm workers are making a wage of $12 to $14 per hour, none reported they could pay more in wages and 69 percent are struggling to remain profitable at the wage
While taking no action in the face of status quo for labor issues in Boulder County was an option for one employer, when asked to select all options that would apply if nothing changed to improve the current challenges, 11 employers will reduce labor intensive acres, 10 will switch to less labor-intensive crops, seven will mechanize more to reduce labor need, five will implement an exit plan and end their business, two will switch from food crops to more profitable crops. One commented they “will move their farm to a community that embraces the importance of local food in action, not just in words”.
The CSU Center for Public Deliberation uses the term “wicked problem” to describe community problems with multiple competing values with no simple solutions. Boulder County is faced with a wicked problem. High value is placed on the availability of local food yet the costs of living for farm workers is mismatched with employers’ ability to pay wages to meet those costs. Affordable housing is a key issue for employees in this regard yet there are few options that fit an $800 rent budget. While there are many factors in this wicked problem that we likely cannot affect such as consumers’ willingness to pay more for local food and thus employers ability to pay higher wages, climate vagaries that impede supply of local food, and upward pressures on housing costs, there are some that we can affect through proactive local agriculture policy, including but not limited to financial assistance to farm workers and increasing the inventory of affordable on and off-farm housing set aside specifically for farm workers.
By Adrian Card, Colorado State University Extension – Boulder County. For more information on agriculture in Boulder County,
visit the CSU Extension Boulder County website at boulder.extension.colostate.edu/agriculture.