It's a big challenge to find help on the farm

Jonathan Knutson
Forum News Service

MADDOCK, N.D. — Brock Georgeson likes his job. Oh, some days are better than others and some parts of the work are more satisfying than others, but he enjoys what’s he doing and plans to stick with it.

“This job isn’t for everybody. But it’s worked out for me,” said Georgeson, who, since 2004, has been a self-described jack-of-all trades for a farm and seed company in Maddock.

People like Georgeson are in short supply across the Upper Midwest. Farmers and ranchers struggle to find employees to help operate their farms, with demand exceeding supply for both seasonal help and full-time, year-round employees. Producers try to find ways to limit the problem — switching from three combines to two larger ones to require one less operator, for example — but the need for workers persists.

It’s not just the Upper Midwest. Zippy Duvall, a Georgia farmer and president of the National Farm Bureau Federation, said last year that “farmers and ranchers in every state tell me that the shortage of labor is the greatest limiting factor on their farm.”

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates the problem, though it’s impossible to say how much, in part because farm workers are designated as “essential,” according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

In any case, the difficult questions of how to find employees, how much to pay them and how best to retain them have no easy answers, according to three Upper Midwest farming operations that responded to Agweek’s request for input on farm labor challenges. One is located in Maddock in north-central North Dakota, and the others in west-central Minnesota and south-central Montana.

What’s responsible?

National statistics can be misleading, since they’re the averages of what can be major variations in different parts of the country. What’s true in, say, the California vegetable industry might not be true, at least not to the same extent, in, say, a rural Montana ranching community.

But several causes of Upper Midwest farm labor shortages are obvious:

  • Farms are getting bigger, and, even though farm equipment is getting bigger, too, larger farms need more employees than small ones. Reflecting that, hired workers accounted for 35% of all ag workers in 2016, up from 25% in 2011 and 20% in 2003, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. And farms’ principal operators and spouses accounted for 59% of all ag workers in 2011, but just 49% in 2016.
  • Farm towns are getting smaller, leaving fewer people in town to potentially help on nearby farms. For example, Maddock’s population fell from 750 in 1950 to 500 in 1990 and to about 400 today.
  • Metropolitan areas now account for the majority of farm employees. That works against farms and ranches a considerable distance from metro areas.
  • Smaller farm families mean fewer family members to potentially help on the farm and greater need for hired employees. (Nationwide, average family size dropped from 3.56 in 1970 to 3.17 in 2019, according to Census Bureau numbers.) Reflecting that, the number of family farm employees dropped by half from 1970 to 2000, USDA says.
  • The ag sector generally pays less than the non-ag sector. In 2019, nonsupervisory hired farm workers earned an average of $13.99 per hour, compared with an average of $23.51 per hour for nonsupervisory production workers outside ag, according to USDA.
  • Farming operations, particularly ones with both crops and livestock, often need their workers to do multiple tasks, some of which potential employees might be unwilling or unable to do. The cyclical and seasonal nature of farm work, which typically requires long hours at planting, harvesting and other key times, can further discourage would-be farm workers.
Diverse Minnesota farm’s approach

Michael Yost understands firsthand that ag’s seasonal nature, as well as other issues, complicate hiring farm employees.

“It’s always challenging, especially from a workforce respective, to find people willing to do everything that a farming operation needs done,” said Yost, of Yost Farm in Murdock, Minn., about 20 miles west of Willmar, Minn.

His family farm, in which his father, Mike, and brother, David, also are involved, grows corn, soybeans, alfalfa and sugar beets, chops silage, pumps manure for local dairies and operates custom harvesting and trucking businesses. It has a dozen year-round employees and as many as 12 seasonal employees during planting and harvesting.

Yost Farm, which began in 1876, takes what Michael Yost called “a multi-prong approach to hiring.” That includes actively recruiting students from local community colleges, maintaining a strong social media presence, networking with area ag businesses to learn more about prevailing wages, keeping in touch with area retired or semi-retired farmers who might be interested in part-time work and working through H2A, the federal program that brings in temporary foreign workers.

In the hiring process, “We’re upfront about the cyclical nature of the work,” Yost said. The business gives employees vacation days when they’re first hired and tries to be generous in giving them time off when needed, but emphasizes that long days will be necessary.

As for determining compensation, “it isn’t easy,” Yost said. In deciding what to offer potential employees, Yost Farm visits with other farmers and ag businesses in the area and also tries to understand what the potential hires might earn elsewhere. In some cases, Yost Farms might pay a little more than necessary.

“At the end of the day, we’re not as concerned about paying someone what the market maybe demands if they’re a really good employee,” Yost said.

He stressed that total compensation, not just hourly pay, is the ultimate measure. For full-time employees, Yost Farm offers a base salary, a 401(k) with employer match and health insurance.

Take these number with a degree of skepticism — remember the warning that averages can be misleading — but USDA earlier this year pegged average hourly farm wages nationwide at $15.07, with average hourly ag wages in the Northern Plains at $15.93. Relatively low pay in southern U.S. states pulled down the national average.

Ultimately, the important thing is to hire employees “who jell well with our team,” Yost said. “We don’t want to be in a position that we need to take the first person who calls (about a job opening).”

Challenged in Montana

Rhonda Hergenrider would like to hire someone to help full time on her family’s Montana farm. She and her father, Randal Hergenrider, with occasional help from her sister, raise sugar beets, malting barley and hay, and run a cow-calf operation near Belfry, Mont.

“Quite honestly, there’s some things that just don’t get done because we don’t quite get there,” she said. “But to get someone with the qualifications (for full-time, year-round work) we need and then to pay them the kind of wages it would take — the salary they could get anywhere else — the (profit) margins are far too thin to make it work.”

And much of the work is highly physical, especially tasks associated with calving and flood-irrigation, which her family practices, further complicating hiring the right people., Hergenrider said.

To obtain truck drivers during the sugar beet harvest, Hergenrider has traded meat and hunting rights on the farm for labor. “But that wouldn’t work for a full-time position, obviously,” she said.

Hergenrider completed a leadership program through the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, in which her special project was to find creative ways to address farm labor issues.

She would welcome “some sort of database that includes a list of farmers and ranchers looking for labor and sportsmen looking for places to hunt with the idea of offering some sort of exchange that would be unique to each specific situation. The need is real on both sides; we just don’t necessarily know each other,” she said.

She isn’t sure how such a database would be developed or who might do it. “But I think there are some possibilities there. It’s about collaboration and maybe developing some alliances with the sportsmen world,” she said.

Hergenrider, 39, said she and her father, 72, have a close relationship and that she’s grateful for the opportunity to work with him. But she knows he won’t be available to help forever, which makes the challenge of finding more farm labor even more important to her — a need for many other farming operations with a family member near or past the normal retirement age.

“It scares me to death. Who steps in when he can’t?” she said. “I think about it every day. We’ve got ideas, a plan, but certainly it’s a concern.”

Looking for the right people

Bryan Kenner, who employs Georgeson, operates a farm that raises wheat, edible beans, barley, soybeans, corn and field peas and also operates BK Seeds, which sells seed and crop protection products.. Between them, the two operations have four full-time employees, in addition to Kenner. He divides their duties between the farm and seed company.

Kenner stressed that overall he’s had success hiring and retaining good employees through the years. Even so, “in the past year, we’ve had some struggles. It’s difficult to find qualified people,” he said. “This spring, we lost an employee and we’ve struggled to replace that person.”

A part-time employee is helping to fill the gap, but Kenner wants to hire a permanent, full-time worker.

“We try to have just full-time help. It seems like when people are here every day, they understand the big picture a little better and do a better job,” Kenner said. “We try to have people in both businesses, as long as they’re comfortable moving between them, so we can keep them busy year round.”

For example, the sales and operation manager for the seed company also drives the combine.

“Our busy season for the farm isn’t always the same as for seed. Essentially, they’re working part of the year for the seed company and part of the year for the farm. Spring is the worst time of the year, because both businesses are busy,” Kenner said.

He’s looking now to hire a warehouse management position with BK Seeds, with the employee also driving truck and working in the shop during winter.

Experience isn’t necessarily a criteria for the job. “Sometimes lack of experience is OK. (Without it), we can train people on how we do things,” Kenner said.

In past hiring efforts, Kenner has worked with Job Service North Dakota with “some good luck and some not so good. We prefer to hire people through word of mouth and references from people we know in the industry,” Kenner said. However, “that doesn’t always work because if there’s somebody good out there, somebody else is probably hiring them.”

Kenner declined to discuss specifics of compensation. “We take everything case-by-case, on what works best for people. It’s a competitive environment; we try to do what’s best for the employee,” he said.

Why the challenge in finding someone for the warehouse management position?

To a small extent, it’s because highly paid jobs in the North Dakota oilfields raised expectations from potential employees. Though the oil boom has cooled, some potential farm employees continue to be influenced by the high wages once paid in that industry, Kenner said.

A bigger factor is, “it’s hard to find people who are willing to put in the hours when it’s required and (for) the kind of jobs they have to do,” said Kenner, whose motto is, “there’s no job I’m not willing to do myself.”

The farm and seed operations do their best to allow employees to take time off for family events, but “when it’s harvest time or spring time, we put in some long days, and back-to-back days, and the biggest struggle is finding people who accept that kind of lifestyle.”

Kenner said his businesses have tried to adopt to the changing needs of employees, who were single when hired but now have families of their own.

‘We’re good’

Georgeson, who lives in Maddock and has three young children, has been an excellent hire, Kenner said.

“Brock’s been great. I can say I’m leaving for a few days for a wedding and he just knows what needs to be done,” Kenner said.

Georgeson grew up in Maddock and has strong ag ties. As a young man, he was employed by another area farmer, which he says, “ just didn’t work out. Bryan came and knocked on my door. I told Bryan, ‘As long as you never yell at me, we’re good.’”

After 16 years, the relationship remains successful, said Georgeson, who also operates his own welding shop on the side in Maddock.

Working on a farm won’t appeal to most people, Georgeson said.

“But for some people it can be good. It has been for me,” he said.

Brock Georgeson, a self-described jack of all trades, has many duties in his farm job, including repairing and maintaining farm equipment.
Bryan Kenner operates a farm and a seed business near Maddock, N.D. He’s had good luck overall in attracting and retaining employees, but there have been challenges recently.