Ag producers struggle to find labor | NevadaAppeal.com

Ag producers struggle to find labor

ROB SABO
Northern Nevada Business Weekly

Despite record unemployment in the state, Northern Nevada farmers still are challenged to find enough farm labor for busy seasons – and it’s equally challenging filling positions that require technical experience and agricultural know-how, they say.

Peri & Sons Farms of Yerington is one of Northern Nevada’s larger farming operations with about 8,000 acres of red, white and yellow onions, leafy greens and alfalfa in the Mason Valley. Peri & Sons routinely seeks guest workers from Mexico on temporary H2-A work visas to harvest its crops.

Brad Johnston, chief strategy officer and general counsel for Peri & Sons, says finding labor is a common problem throughout the agricultural business. Despite the economic downturn and high unemployment in the state, the demographic of farm workers hasn’t changed.

“Generally speaking, we do not get many U.S. workers who come and apply for jobs,” Johnston says. “We pretty much rely on guest workers.”

Peri & Sons recently began ramping up staffing levels for the spring planting season as it winds up sale of its 2010 crops. Its first group of guest workers arrived a few weeks ago, Johnston says. During peak harvest season in September and October, Peri & Sons employs between 1,500 and 1,800 guest workers. Despite advertising for the positions in local media outlets, Johnston says most, if not all, workers come from Mexico on the H2-A Visa program.

Crops such as onions are picked and bagged by hand – an extremely arduous process. The workday can be long as well, between seven and 12 hours per day. Workers receive more than $10 per hour and also are given free housing. Johnston says the process of getting so many workers from Mexico into northern Nevada can be extremely cumbersome.

“It is a very regulated program,” he says, “and we have had some issues getting workers in the past. The biggest challenge is navigating through the regulations to get applications and workers processed and get them to Yerington.”

“We are not unique in the industry,” Johnston adds. “In California and elsewhere, satisfying the labor needs of agricultural producers is a challenge – it is so labor intensive, and it is very, very hard work. We have to utilize the guest workers to fill that labor need; there just is not the number of local workers who are willing to do that work.”

Jim Snyder, co-owner of Snyder Livestock Co. in Yerington, said even when local workers apply for farm or more technical agricultural jobs, the skill level of applicants and their commitment to farm work typically is “distressingly low.”

“So often they are people who are desperate for work, but they can’t do it for physical reasons or they aren’t willing,” Snyder says. “It is a shock to most of them, I believe.”

Snyder farms about 200 acres of garlic, 300 acres of onions and 1,800 acres of hay. A small portion of the company’s crops head to local farmers’ markets, while some, such as the bulk of its garlic, goes to large California farms for seed.

Snyder says the H2-A Visa program is both expensive and restrictive, but it’s the only way the company can get enough farm hands during harvest. The company employs a peak of 180.

Snyder, who has farmed in the Mason Valley for three decades, speaks Spanish, as do several other family members, so communication with foreign workers isn’t much of a problem. One of the main challenges he faces, though, is finding workers with even a smattering of technical ability.

“We don’t have a lot of those positions, but there are times when we could use somebody and they are not available,” he says. “I can’t think of a single applicant with any kind of technical agricultural background in the past year.”

It’s a growing problem through the agricultural industry, says Clint Koble, state executive direct of the Farm Service Agency of the U.S Department of Agriculture. Not only is it hard to attract workers with science and technical ability to farming when there are good-paying mining jobs in northern and eastern Nevada, Koble says, but there’s an increasing need for skilled workers to capitalize on technological advances in the agricultural industry.

Koble envisions a day not too far in the future when farmers in the field are inputting data into smart phones to be crunched by someone manning a computer in an office.

“Agriculture definitely is becoming more science-based, and so is energy, and both affect farm and ranch producers,” Koble says. “We are going to have to have a farm workforce that is more educated and technologically proficient. You don’t have to have a college degree to go out farming and ranching, but the more successful farmers are using technology and science-based information and equipment.”

Attracting skilled workers to remote farms and ranches in rural Nevada could prove equally challenging, Koble adds. Compounding the problem is the fact that state budget cuts forced the University of Nevada College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources to close its Agricultural and Applied Economics degree to new students beginning in June of 2010.

Although students can still take business classes that will help with the technical aspects of farm management, they will lose certain skills developed in plant and animal science and production by the closure of the ag degree path, says Tom Harris, a professor in resource economic in the UNR College of Agriculture.

“People will have some abilities, but it won’t be like it used to be,” Harris says.