Miranda Nelson

Miranda Nelson is one of three family owners of Nellie Holsteins, an Eau Claire County dairy farm that has invested in technology to cut labor costs and improve production.

The American economy is experiencing a labor shortage in virtually every sector across the nation. Agriculturists, farmers and advocates are searching for answers — from Capitol Hill, to the rural heartland and across international borders.

Labor shortages are hardly a new phenomenon in the dairy industry, said John Holevoet, director of governmental affairs at Edge Dairy Farmers Cooperative. Struggles to find workers in 2021 only represents the latest iteration of what has been a concern in agriculture for decades.

“It’s been almost a generation. That’s not an exaggeration. In some ways, we’ve been a bit of a canary in the coal mine,” Holevoet said. “We saw labor shortages expand farm labor to other areas of agribusiness and food processing to other areas of rural manufacturing. People are having a hard time finding people. We’ve been dealing with this for a long, long time.”

According to polls conducted by the cooperative at this year’s World Dairy Expo in Madison, 75% of respondents said the economy was the most pressing issue going into the 2022 mid-terms, while flagging supply chains and labor shortages were identified as significant factors.

Of course, whether dwindling employment pools indicate a labor shortage or a shortage of attractive, good-paying jobs is a matter of debate. If it’s the latter, it doesn’t apply to dairy and agriculture at large, said Holeveot. He noted that farmers routinely pay starting hourly wages in the high teens or low twenties, with competitive benefits.

That’s a far cry from minimum wage jobs in retail, fast food and other sectors of customer service which have experienced losses in recent months.

So what’s driving these labor shortages and why is agriculture particularly vulnerable?’

In Holevoet’s eyes, much of it can be attributed to trends in the making for decades — long before 2020 or COVID-19. The pandemic only accelerated what was already a looming problem for agriculturists across the United States.

Farming no longer occupies the central place in American culture it once did. Now, it’s further removed form the everyday lives and interest of most, particularly among younger people who would otherwise occupy these unfilled jobs.

This problem extends past agriculture, Holevoet said. There’s a shortage of available workers in rural areas, period. Population growth has been concentrated in urban centers, Holevoet said, while younger rural residents have been making an exodus to cities. Neither of these trends bode well for rural economies and agriculture.

“This is not just a reflection of pandemic economics or something like that. This is about an overall shortage of people of the appropriate age group in rural America,” Holevoet said. “There’s a demographic shift away from rural America. You’ll see the trend everywhere, the rural part of states have suffered greatly in terms of population growth.”

And why are younger workers leaving in droves? Holevoet identified a number of barriers to gainful employment. A lack of affordable housing is one. Accessible childcare — where rural providers are experiencing a frightening decline — is another. It can be expensive to own and maintain vehicles in places where public transportation is nonexistent.

Addressing these factors — such as building affordable housing or better access to driver’s cards for foreign workers — is a key focus. Because, bundled together, these factors can lend rural areas an aura of economic regression, Holevoet, and counteracting that perception is one goal of advocacy organizations like Edge.

“We’re encouraging people to settle for job opportunities (in rural areas). The hope is to help combat some of the negative perceptions and also show and showcase the good things that we have to offer,” Holevoet said. “There’s an opportunity to bring people back to ag.”

And advocates are looking in unorthodox places. Holevoet noted that Edge and many ag organizations are recruiting in urban school districts like Milwaukee, where students often haven’t had a relative involved in farming in generations.

In a more tangible sense, the cooperative has joined a nationwide push for Congress to pass the 2021 Farm Workforce Modernization Act. The act has been hailed as major step toward reforming the country’s visa program for the better, thereby bolstering available foreign workers to help pick up the slack.

“We have to really be thinking about how we attract that next generation of workers. Not just this year, but next year and the year after. It’s hard to see how that is accomplished without some sort of visa program,” Holevoet said. “When it comes to encouraging people to look at ag as a viable career option, I think that is something we can do. We also need public private partnerships, perhaps within our state, between state and local governments, with our local school districts.”

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