Promotion, training necessary to attract agricultural workers

Statistics show that fewer than one-third of Canadian farmers use hired labour.

Statistics don’t show whether that’s because they don’t need help or they can’t find help.

Food and commodity producers across Canada say it is becoming increasingly difficult to find people willing to work on the farm, regardless of farm type. Hog producers can’t find barn workers. Grain farmers can’t find truck drivers. Feedlots can’t find cattle handlers. Fruit growers can’t find fruit pickers.

Statistically, total employment in agriculture has been declining since at least 1950, when 1.2 million people were employed in agriculture. Now the total is 315,000.

Technology use and ever-increasing farm efficiencies are largely the reason. Fewer people are needed, yet fewer people seem to be available to do the work.

Data shows Canada’s labour market as a whole is shrinking, with fewer people entering the workforce than leaving it, according to data compiled by agricultural economist Ray Bollman, formerly of Statistics Canada.

There are fewer labourers in general, ergo fewer agricultural labourers in general.

Yet from an economist’s point of view, there is little evidence of an agricultural labour shortage, said Bollman. So far as anyone can determine, every acre that was planted last year was harvested, every steer fattened went to slaughter and every apple grown was picked.

Bollman was not denying farmer difficulties in finding help. Rather, his point was that it is difficult if not impossible to gauge productivity losses that result from labour shortages.

That doesn’t mean they weren’t there, but without documented productivity losses, it’s harder to force action on the problem.

A crop that is seeded before timely spring rain can yield much more than one that is delayed because there weren’t enough people on the crew to get the job done.

A crop that is combined before a harvest-halting autumn rain may yield the same as a crop combined after said rain, but losses can occur in grade and profit.

And a steer that doesn’t get an accurate and timely vaccination against disease because there was no knowledgeable employee to administer it will still get to slaughter, but its weight and grade might be reduced, and so will profits.

Then there’s the physical toll that longer hours, necessitated by a labour shortage, can have on farmers. Health, safety and family relationships can suffer. All of which is to say that farm labour shortages can potentially have huge, though unmeasured, costs.

The catch-22 is that a combination of these costs limits farmers’ ability to pay more for labour, often cited for potential employees’ reluctance to take farm jobs.

The seasonality of many positions and the requirement for greater technical skills in many jobs are also major impediments. So is the notion that all farm jobs are mundane or physically difficult.

The solutions? Statistics don’t provide them. Many farm groups are pressing for quicker and easier approvals for seasonal foreign farm workers. That may be the quickest remedy in the short term, but more effort must be made to train and employ Canadian farm workers on a permanent basis.

And that’s going to require better promotion of the opportunities available, improved human resource management on the part of farmers and creation of training programs for agriculture’s more technical jobs.

Those things, and other potential remedies, will take time to implement, and that means the employee squeeze is likely to get worse before it gets better.

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