Skip to content

Ag labour has its challenges

Over the past year there have been seminars and workshops all deliberating on the agricultural labour shortage.


Over the past year there have been seminars and workshops all deliberating on the agricultural labour shortage. Part of these talkfests concern restrictions to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program and the lure of jobs in the energy industry. It isn’t just the primary production sector that is impacted, the processing sector mainly meat production is also affected, although that’s been an ongoing problem for many years.

One notes that many of the meetings involve ways to entice workers with indirect incentives even giving technical titles to farm jobs to make them look more prestigious. It would seem that at many of these events excruciating exercises are being carried out to avoid the obvious. It’s one of those obvious matters that everyone knows about but doesn’t want to mention. The energy sector knows exactly what that matter is and uses it quite successfully. To attract workers they simply pay more and provide better benefits. Unless the agriculture sector can match that reality, attracting and keeping employees will always be a problem.

To make matters worse some sectors of agriculture fight any changes to benefits that could make attracting workers a lot easier. I cite the ag industry’s outright opposition to providing their workers with mandatory Workers Compensation and Occupational Health Standards. Those benefits are expected in any job outside of agriculture. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if two jobs are equal, the one with mandatory workers’ rights programs would be preferable. The counter argument is that ag employers can’t afford those programs and resent the paperwork and government oversight. Well the consequence is clear – you will have a labour shortage problem.

It’s been noted that there is a smaller pool of rural young people available to work farm jobs. That’s the result of a declining birthrate and farm consolidation that sees fewer farm families. The irony has been the desire of parents to educate their children so they have better employment options than working in agriculture. All of those factors have had a particular impact on medium sized farms where economic viability has been difficult. The point being that a once reliable source of trained farm employees has slowly disappeared. For farm kids it’s always been a sellers’ market. Most employers know that any farm-raised young person is much more reliable, more versatile, and a lot more clever at getting work done than any city-bred kid. They also understand the work-ethic and are ambitious; I would suggest that you would be hard pressed to find a farm-kid of working age that is unemployed even in bad times. No wonder ag employers are having a problem with farm labour.

Governments try to help with programs that facilitate the recruitment of foreign farm labour. An international ag student exchange program has been in place for decades, and specific temporary ag worker programs are in place with Mexico and Caribbean countries for many years. The federal temporary foreign workers program has been particularly beneficial to the greenhouse and meat processing sectors. Unfortunately that program has become restrictive due to a political response to abuse in the fast food sector.

So what’s an ag employer to do, well there is some knowledge to be gained from the myriad farm labour seminars and workshops, at least you would find out where you stand in the scheme of the overall labour market. There is the option of using labour recruitment agencies and companies. But you may have to offer some basic benefits to get some recruits. You may have to look in the mirror – agriculture is a small industry in many ways – your particular operation over the years may have accumulated a bad reputation from a worker perspective. The grapevine is full of farm workers’ horror stories whether they are fact or fiction. Recognizing and changing a bad reputation may be an ag employer’s biggest hurdle.

For those that assume that recent layoffs in the oil patch will resolve ag labour shortages – that’s a short-term pipe dream at best. Those folks have tasted the high life and would be gone with the next energy industry upturn and job offer.

In the end farm labour shortages could be addressed through simple competition – offer similar benefits to the rest of the labour market. Throw in unique benefits like a pickup truck, free beef and provide for actual vacations and time off. Farm workers are no different than anyone else – in the end they just want what anyone else wants and gets.