Inability to attract workers continues to plague agriculture

Agriculture’s ongoing labour crunch is back in the news as industry and policy makers continue to grapple with the sector’s ongoing fight to find workers.

The Conference Board of Canada recently released its Sowing the Seeds of Growth report in conjunction with the Canadian Agriculture Human Resource Council. The report looks at agriculture’s heavy reliance on temporary foreign workers to fill its worker void.

The report found labour shortfalls had doubled in the last decade to 59,200 vacancies, which is expected to double again by 2025.

The actually number isn’t new (The council released the raw data earlier this year), but the conference board’s analysis of the situation is worth considering.

The board found that higher wages and more mechanization on Canadian farms were not the be-all-and end-all solutions to farmers’ labour woes that Canadians may think they are.

The report said that agricultural wages are still some of the lowest in the country, about 25 percent less than the average for all other sectors. Only a few sectors have wages that are lower, including retail, accommodation and food services.

“This wage gap makes it difficult for employers to compete with other sectors in attracting domestic workers,” the report said.

That wage gap has narrowed over time, the conference board found.

“(Still), the number of domestic workers willing to work in agriculture has steadily declined.”

Matching the wages of other seasonal industries isn’t always an option, either. Wages would need to increase an average of 66 percent if farmers were to start paying wages similar to those found within the construction industry.

That’s simply not feasible for most farmers, the report said, because of market conditions and restrictions.

“Many of the products grown by the sector are commodities, meaning that producers have only a limited ability to distinguish their products from others,” the report said.

“As a result, prices for their products are generally set with a price ceiling that is decided by regional or global markets. Raising wages in an environment where prices cannot rise commensurately would erode operator profits and potentially put them out of business.”

Relying on robots and computers to do the jobs isn’t the magic fix either, the report found.

“The amount of machinery and equipment invested per worker in agriculture has increased by 60 percent over the past 25 years, four times the pace of growth for the economy as a whole.”

Drones, GPS equipment, combines that can drive themselves, and robotic milkers are only some of the new high tech tools available to producers these days that are pushing the sector to new heights.

However, with those new tools come new skills. A combine breakdown in a field now isn’t always easily fixed with a wrench. It seems like farm equipment mechanics more often than not also need a degree in computer programming.

These are skills that aren’t always commonplace in an industry in which the medium age continues to increase

Nor can one expect the current mechanization pace to continue at the same rate. At some point, the low hanging fruit will have been picked and it will be increasingly difficult for agricultural producers to record productivity improvements, the report said.

Still, the conference board found that one of the biggest challenges is one that farm groups have been telling policy makers for years.

Agriculture is a rural industry. The sector’s location, where “populations are experiencing no growth and are aging rapidly,” isn’t changing any time soon.

The report said many companies have been able to move plants and equipment closer to domestic and international locations where there are workers. Those solutions are not available to producers.

“Farm operators cannot do this; the land and water available for agricultural production are in Canada, not elsewhere, and cannot be moved,” it said.

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