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Can Hydroponics Solve The Seasonal Farm Labor Shortage?

60% of all agribusiness deals with some degree of a farm labor shortage, according to a study from Kansas State University. Additionally, a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council attributed 20 percent of unharvested produce in the U.S. to labor shortages. What’s causing this labor shortage, and what can be done to alleviate the pressure it puts on American farm owners?

In this blog, we’ll cover the farm labor shortage, explaining factors that are causing the problem, discuss potential solutions and explain how technological advancements like hydroponic farms may solve the agriculture sector’s problems.

What’s Causing Farms to Have a Labor Shortage?

There are about 2.4 million farm jobs that need to be filled on an annual basis, yet the number of American workers employed in agriculture decreases year over year. In the most recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of agriculture jobs is projected to decline by 2% between 2022 and 2032.

While there are many reasons for the labor shortage affecting the American farming industry, there are a few main reasons why the crisis has gotten this bad, and why it may get worse before it improves:

Farmworkers are aging out of the profession, and there’s not enough new young workers to fill vacated positions.

Workers have been moving out of rural areas and into urban areas in search of high-paying jobs and better opportunities, shrinking the availability of farm labor in rural areas.

Increased education access has reduced the percentage of workers in the United States that are considered “unskilled laborers.”

Due to previously mentioned factors and the widespread employment of low-wage seasonal H-2A visa workers, agricultural education is becoming increasingly sparser in American schools.

Farm combine harvesters harvest wheat in a farm's field.
While farming has advanced from hand-harvesting to the use of combine harvesters, cutting down on the need for workers, farmers still struggle with farm labor shortages.

What Can Be Done to Alleviate the Shortage?

There are a few things that can be done to alleviate America’s farm labor shortage. Here’s just a few potential solutions that might help alleviate the issues facing farm owners:

Farmers Can Grow Crops That Are Less Labor Intensive

Farmers can alleviate labor problems by growing crops that are less labor intensive to harvest or can benefit from automated harvesting.

Potential bruising is one drawback of automated harvesting. Growing tomatoes, blueberries and other crops for processing customers is one way farmers can limit the effect of this bruising.

On the other hand, fresh field crops like tomatoes, lettuce and strawberries are more likely to be damaged from automated harvesting, so farmers may intentionally avoid these crops when increasing the mechanization of their harvesting processes.

Farm Owners Can Increase Wages for Farmworkers

Additionally, farms may be able to utilize mechanisms of the free market by paying a higher wage and offering competitive benefits. This will increase their competitiveness compared to competitors and other industries.

Farms pay significantly lower wages compared to the rest of the American economy, around 60% of the nonfarm wage. This disparity has been shrinking year-on-year, but very slowly. It makes farm jobs less competitive compared to other professions and contributes to the farm labor shortage.

Can Farming Technology Help Reduce the Shortage?

By increasing automation, farmers can increase production despite labor market pressures. In other words, utilizing technology to reduce the amount of human labor required for peak production.

Technologies like autonomous machinery and drones for analyzing farm conditions increase farm productivity, but may be less available for smaller farms, which makes them a long-term solution to the farm labor shortage, but not one immediately available to most American farms.

A camera drone with four propellers flies over farmland.
Farm drones allow farmers to survey their land with less effort, helping them identify problem areas that require additional attention.

How Container Farms May Alleviate the Farm Labor Shortage

Container farms represent a departure from traditional agriculture, offering several distinct advantages. One key difference lies in their reduced reliance on seasonal labor. By providing long-term employment opportunities, container farms stabilize the labor market and mitigate the risk of overproducing crops that can’t be harvested promptly by farmworkers.

There are many potential benefits of using hydroponic farms to solve farm labor shortages. Here’s just a few:

  • Reduce reliance on seasonal labor
  • Increase efficiency and productivity
  • Increase automation
  • Provide agriculture opportunities for educated workers, bringing in new workers from different industries
  • Reduce the need for transportation

The technology-driven nature of container farming attracts a diverse pool of workers. Educated individuals from various backgrounds—such as engineering, biology, and data science—can contribute their expertise to optimize farm operations.

Additionally, container farms are adaptable to different climates and locations. They can be set up in urban areas, repurposed warehouses, or even on rooftops. This flexibility ensures that food production remains resilient, regardless of external factors like weather conditions or labor availability.

Tropicana lettuce in a hydroponic container farm.
Hydroponic container farms attract different types of workers compared to traditional agriculture. Hydroponic workers typically have a technical understanding of how hydroponic systems work, which typically requires higher education levels, attracting workers from more varied backgrounds.

Summary

In conclusion, the American farm labor shortage is a multifaceted issue that requires a multi-pronged approach to address. While the challenges are significant, the potential solutions—ranging from planting less labor-intensive crops to offering increased wages, and from implementing advanced farming technologies to utilizing innovative container farms—offer hope for a more sustainable and efficient future in agriculture.

By embracing these changes, the industry can attract a new generation of workers, reduce its reliance on seasonal labor, and ensure that it remains a vital part of the American economy. The road ahead may be long, but with strategic planning and the adoption of new technologies, the agricultural sector can overcome the current labor crisis and emerge with new strengths.

Curious about learning more about hydroponic farms, or how container farms can provide your farming operations with stable, year-round controlled climate growing? Contact us today, and we can provide quotes for our container farm systems, and help you decide if our turnkey hydroponic systems can help your operations.

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