Increasing Farm Wages: A Labor Crisis and the Effects on Agriculture

Labor Costs

Rising Farm Wages and Labor Costs May Lead to Higher Grocery Bills

Farms across America are struggling to secure sufficient labor and pay increasing minimum wages. This issue is most prevalent in California where the minimum wage will continue to increase to $15 in just three years. Additionally, previous exemptions on overtime for agricultural workers are now null, meaning that any person working more than forty hours a week will have to be paid time and a half. Readers from other states might be thinking “who cares about CA politics, there’s no problem here!” Think again, With 60% of the country’s agriculture in California, a rise in labor costs will inevitably lead to higher grocery bills for consumers as well as more food waste.

The Response can be Challenging and Complicated

As farm wages rise, farmers are faced with few options. To mitigate the cost of labor farmers are forced to increase productivity of their crews, raise their prices, or switch to automated processes. Each of these options has major drawbacks. Increasing productivity is difficult and there is only so much work that can be done in one day. Some farms offer production bonuses to their workers based on how many pounds of produce is harvested in the day. These bonuses can be costly, especially since the workers baseline pay is already so high. Since labor is more expensive, the price of the crop must go up. However, farmers are competing not only with other states with lower minimum wages, but with other countries that have no regulations regarding farm labor. Raising the price of the product will only result in more produce being imported from Mexico. This takes jobs away from entry level positions across the entire farm.

Automation is Costly and Can lead to Increased Market Farm Consolidation

Automation seems like a great solution to this labor crisis; however, the technology has not yet met the complicated needs of agriculture. While new options are on the horizon, we are still very far away from fully automated harvesting or planting. The initial cost of machines is very high, and most small farms lack the capital required to invest in automation. As these technologies develop, we will likely see family businesses bought out by corporate farms. In addition, the agricultural workers will not benefit from the rising minimum wages as they will be without a job completely.

Is Buying Local the Solution?

So, what can consumers do to help both agricultural workers and farm owners? BUY LOCAL. Even when produce is more expensive, buying local supports the farms in the community and reduces the ecological hazards of long distance shipping. It also provides demand for products that will lead to more production at local farms and therefore more work for agricultural laborers. Buying domestic products also guarantees that the people who produced that product were paid a fair wage, had safe working conditions, and the product passes the high safety standards of the United States. It only takes a few extra seconds at the grocery store to check the label on produce and ensure it is a product of the USA. Aside from buying local, another way to help local farms is to fully read and understand measures before voting on them. If you are unsure how a bill might affect agriculture, do research or try to speak with a farmer about their opinion. When the time comes to elect senators and representatives, consider their stance or background on agricultural policy. Human welfare and labor rights are extremely important, but food supply affects every single person in this country. When food costs rise, the poorest people are affected the most.

Author - Riley Graham

About Riley Graham

Riley is a third year Food Science student at UC Davis hoping to one day work in research and development. Her specific areas of interest are in sustainability in agricultural processing; however, she’s exploring other options in food science such as sensory science and even brewing. Being a food science student at one of the world’s premier agricultural research centers gives Riley a unique perspective on the issues we face in food production. Even when I’m outside of the classroom, Riley never stops learning. When not doing homework or working in a lab, Riley plays piano, reads science fiction, and loves to cook.