Trying to find enough greenhouse vegetable workers? You’re not alone.

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Jose “Pepe” Calderon, head grower at Local Bounti, said finding people willing to produce greenhouse vegetables has become complicated because crops like tomatoes require skilled workers to perform some production activities.

As in other industries, greenhouse vegetable operators are facing challenges finding enough skilled workers to produce their crops.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, employers were having a difficult time finding enough workers. The coronavirus has only exasperated that challenge.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects overall employment of agricultural workers will rise 2 percent from 2020 to 2030. That is the slowest average for all occupations. During this 10-year period the bureau expects there will be on average about 138,900 openings each year for agricultural workers. The majority of these openings will be the result of having to replace workers who have left for different occupations or have exited the labor force.

In 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, agricultural workers held about 869,000 jobs. Greenhouse along with nursery and farm laborers accounted for the majority of agricultural employment with 526,300 jobs. Half of the workers employed in agriculture were involved in crop production.

Need for skilled labor

“The challenges to finding workers are enormous,” said Jose “Pepe” Calderon, head grower at Local Bounti, a greenhouse producer of fresh greens and herbs in Hamilton, Mont. “Companies worldwide are expressing the same concern about a lack of labor. Employers need them promptly, but aren’t always successful at finding them.

“In recent years, finding people who want to work in agriculture has been complicated, especially in the greenhouse sector, because the people required to perform the jobs associated with greenhouse food production need specific skills.”

Calderon said some tomato production activities, including twisting and clipping, require specific abilities to complete these tasks in a timely and quality manner. Failure to perform these tasks properly can lead to plant damage resulting in a reduction in fruit quality and yield.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports that even though the demand for crops and other ag products continues to increase, employment growth is expected to be limited. One of the reasons for this slow growth is the move by ag businesses to implement technologies that increase worker productivity. According to the Bureau, the increased use of mechanization on farms will lead to more jobs for equipment operators compared to traditional farm workers. From 2020 to 2030, hiring of equipment operators is projected to increase 13 percent.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports that even though the demand for vegetable crops and other ag products continues to increase, employment growth is expected to be limited.

Rising costs, losses

“As a result of the lack of skilled workers, the greenhouse industry is trying to automate certain activities,” Calderon said. “However, many greenhouse operators don’t know how long it will take to recover these equipment investments due to the high costs associated with these purchases.

“Greenhouse food production is currently affected by a shortage of trained workers since all activities are not completed on time. As a result, crop growth is out of balance, affecting productivity and product quality while raising production costs.”

New American Economy reports the shortage of agricultural workers has had a major impact on the U.S. economy because agriculture is so closely intertwined with many other industries. This research and advocacy organization which advocates for equitable immigration policies, estimates U.S. growers would have produced $3.1 billion more in fresh fruits and vegetables per year by 2014 had farm labor not been an issue.

Due to the rising demand for skilled workers in all agricultural sectors, Calderon said wages will continue to rise dramatically, leading to increased production costs. 

“At this time in the industry, greenhouse vegetable operations are having issues with workers carrying out crop labor activities such as crop management and maintenance, irrigation and harvesting,” he said. “It is also challenging to find people with skills to supervise the workers and help them to reach their full potential quickly in order to make businesses profitable.

“At this moment, the greenhouse industry is also experiencing a lack of growers who can handle every aspect of the business, including quality of work, training of new generations of growers and the management of cutting-edge technologies. It is also critical that growers have administrative skills to keep business costs low.”

As a result of not being able to hire enough skilled workers, the greenhouse industry is looking to be able to automate certain activities including tomato harvesting. Photo courtesy of AppHarvest.

Employee cost of production

USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reported that farm operators paid their hired workers an average gross wage of $16.59 per hour during Oct. 2021, up 5 percent from the same time period in Oct. 2020. For greenhouse vegetable production, Calderon said the average wage for workers in California is $17 per hour and $16 per hour in Kentucky and Montana.

He said a U.S. greenhouse vegetable facility requires three to four employees per acre (six to eight employees per hectare) depending on the tomato crop. Small tomatoes require more intensive labor to produce and harvest, requiring 1.6 employees per acre (four per hectare) for the production of the crop and an additional employee per acre (two per hectare) to harvest the tomatoes.

For greenhouse lettuce production the number of employees varies with the amount of automation being used. A 1-acre hydroponic operation equipped with automation, including seeding, planting and harvesting for one product SKU, would require one to two employees per acre (three to four employees per acre). This would not include the labor needed to package the product.

Finding more workers

The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program could go a long way in resolving many of the issues facing agricultural producers including greenhouse vegetable operations. Ag America Lending reports inefficiencies in the H-2A program are making it increasingly difficult for agricultural producers to bring in workers in a timely and affordable manner.

Calderon said the H-2A program could be a good alternative for agricultural producers if federal officials can resolve some of the problems currently associated with it. In most cases, the productivity of H-2A contract workers can be substantially higher than local workers. He cited his experience with a greenhouse tomato operation which was able to operate with two H-2A workers per hectare, but required 9.8 locally-hired workers per hectare to perform the same tasks.

For more: Jose “Pepe” Calderon

This article is property of Urban Ag News and was written by David Kuack, a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas.

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