The farm labour mismatch – The Western Producer
Ag employment trends downward | Farmers have a tough time finding skilled workers
Farmers say there is a shortage of farm labourers.
Economists say it’s less a labour shortage than a matter of distribution and demand.
Agricultural human resources people say farmers and economists are both right and plan to figure out how those views fit together.
The Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council (CAHRC) has launched a three-year, federally funded project to look at labour supply and update information on farm labour demand.
“If you speak with farmers, they will tell you generally across the country and also across commodities that they cannot find people to work on their farms for the work that needs to be done and that the traditional sources of labour, which may have been from their family and also neighbours … there are fewer family members and fewer neighbours out there,” said CAHRC project manager Debra Hauer.
Ray Bollman, an adjunct professor at the University of Saskatchewan and the project’s senior research adviser, said simple demographics indicate fewer people are entering the workforce than leaving it, and agricultural employment is trending downward.
“I think you’ll find lots of people saying there’s a lack of skilled labour and I think in some pockets there is a lack of skilled labour,” said Bollman.
“But overall I think it’s more of a mismatch than a shortage.”
He said wages would be spiking if agricultural labour was in dire shortage, but statistics indicate that is not the case.
Nor has productivity suffered from lack of workers, at least in a readily measurable way.
“I believe people are sincere when they say (there is a shortage of farm labour), but every acre got planted last year and every cow got milked and most apples and most strawberries got picked … so somehow it happens, and if there’s a real labour shortage some of this would be left on the field.”
Don Connick, who farms near Gull Lake, Sask., said Bollman’s view is true to a point, but farm productivity lost to lack of manpower is a tricky calculation.
“It’s probably not only difficult but impossible to measure that, because timeliness of an operation can make a difference in dollars and cents, but again, there’s no sort of guideline to measure that by. If you finish seeding an hour before it rains, that’s worth a lot of money.”
Connick said he often hears farmers complain about difficulty finding workers, but he doesn’t know of any who quit the business because of it.
He said this is partly because of retired farmers’ willingness to hire on during seeding and harvest. Their experience and skills make them ideal temporary employees, and the skill set necessary for many farm operations is not easily found among casual labourers or temporary foreign workers.
Farmers have responded to a trend toward fewer and larger operations by scaling up their equipment to reduce labour needs and save time. Instead of two combines, a farmer might choose to buy one big combine.
“I think that that’s almost come to the end as well. I think there’s a limit as to how big machinery can get, (and) how much we can afford,” said Connick.
“And if you’re going to farm huge acreages, then you need to be mechanized, but you also need some really skilled labour to run those units.”
Wages are the other problem for farmers. Many say they can’t afford to pay high rates.
Humphrey Banack, an Alberta farmer and vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said he has to pay workers $26 per hour plus benefits to keep them on the farm.
“Minimum wage isn’t a discussion in Alberta,” he said. “We’re competing with the oil patch.”
Connick puts Saskatchewan figures at $20 or more per hour for farm employees if employers have any hope of retaining them.
However, Bollman’s figures indicate Canadian agricultural workers make $12 to $15 per hour, on average. That includes seasonal and foreign workers for such things as greenhouse work and fruit picking.
His figures also show the seasonality of agricultural work. About 70,000 workers enter and exit the agricultural labour force every year in Canada, and an additional 24,000 come from outside Canada through various foreign worker programs.
Bollman said a greater focus on employee retention and more efficient hiring methods to get workers with the needed skills could help ease the pressure.
That requires expertise in human resources, which is the focus of the CAHRC.
However, a clear picture of agricultural labour is needed before more concentrated work is undertaken, said Hauer.
“We’ve been hearing across the country and across commodities that there is a shortage,” said Hauer.
“This project is going to try to get to the bottom of what that looks like, both from an economist and a producer point of view.”
Total agriculture employment in 2013 was 315,000.
Women represent 30 percent of total agricultural employment.
Fewer than one-third of farmers hire labour. More than half of non-family workers are employed on farms with sales of $1 million or more.
Forty percent of paid workers are family members.
Thirty percent of non-family workers were employed in the greenhouse and nursery sector.
The average farm wage bill for grain and oilseed workers rose 7.3 percent per year from 2006-12.