The average household spends 9.5 percent of their disposable income on food, and food prices have been rising for the past five years. However, for every dollar spent on food, a farmer receives only 7.6 cents. Despite rising food costs, farmers are predicted to lose 9.7 percent of total net income in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Farmers are facing a difficult challenge with reduced income, more consumer demands, and very notably, reduced labor sources.
The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates there are over 2.4 million farm jobs that need to be filled annually, but there is a drastic decline in available workers year after year. Over 73 percent of farm workers are immigrants, mostly from Mexico and South America, and although the H2-A program has been increasing the number of accepted applications, the 250,000 farm workers it allows into the country each year doesn’t do enough to fill the labor needs. Almost 50 percent of immigrant farm workers do not have legal authorization to work; authorized immigrant workers make up about 20 %percent of farm labor, according to the USDA.
Agricultural industries have a difficult time employing workers since wages are an average of only 60 percent of what other industries can offer. Although farm wages have been rising, especially as a result of the H-2A program, which requires pay to be higher than the state/federal minimum wage, farm operators have little wiggle room to pay employees more.
Labor already costs fruit and vegetables growers an estimated 25 percent or more of their income; any increase in farm wages means a reduction in the already little income operators receive. Reduced availability in labor and increases in consumer demands have led to production changes.
Consumer pressure to change production practices to be more environmentally friendly, use fewer chemicals, or offer niche market products like organic, non-GMO, or hormone free has also impacted farm income. Often these production practices are more expensive than conventional methods, utilize expensive equipment, or produce less yields and therefore less product to sell.
As a response to the decreasing available labor, increasing cost of labor, reduced farm income, and new production methods agriculture has made innovative steps to replace human-based jobs with technology. Labor shortages and financial restraints require innovative growth or risk the loss of a U.S. food system. One major advancement that many food crops are instilling is the use of mechanical harvesting to replace hand labor. Equipment is expensive, however it can be utilized over many growing seasons and often reduces the need for labor to just a handful of people. Artificial intelligence is opening the door to even more developments, such as robotic fruit pickers that work more efficiently than hand labor. Robots and mechanical harvesters don’t require housing, transportation, food, or breaks, and can be operated for as long as they have power.
Fruit and vegetable growers aren’t the only ones employing technology to reduce labor needs. Livestock operations, especially dairies, are utilizing all sorts of devices to limit the need for workers they can’t find. Many dairies are switching to automatic milking machines, which can typically service 50 to 70 cows per day, and automatic calf feeders, which can feed up 120 calves per mixing station. These technologies, although have not always proven profitable in current studies, have the capability to reduce labor needs which solves a major problem. Without the use of these machines or ability to find workers, these dairies would have to close indefinitely.
Farm labor, food prices, and new technology are all interconnected when it comes to the future of agriculture in the United States. Solutions to one issue may impact another, sometimes negatively and other times positively.
Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is a farmer, public speaker and writer who has worked for years with row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.