I’ve been meaning to write some articles for the newsletter that more deeply explore particular themes. Recent events have led me to think this week would be a good opportunity to write a bit about the current labor shortages that many farms like ours are experiencing. Over the last week we had one of our core year round employees quit suddenly. In the process of trying to figure out why and how some of our colleagues deal with this sort of thing, I discovered that we’re actually doing better than most. It seems that up and down the coast several farmers I spoke with were struggling with not enough employees to plant, weed, and harvest. They are either cutting back on sowings, abandoning less profitable crops, or hiring labor contractors to try to fill in the gaps.
This year, we’re also finding labor a challenge. We had one long term employee go home to Mexico this winter, and have lost three others- one to health issues, one we had to let go, and another to a job that didn’t require commuting and supposedly had more pay under the table. We’re definitely abandoning some less profitable crops and preparing to abandon others. We’ve also decided to raise prices for wholesale items and we’re going to raise prices at market on some questionably profitable crops (bunching greens for example). No need for labor contractors though- thank goodness.
Finding good skilled employees is a struggle for many of us small farms. Here in Pescadero the issues are that although there are jobs, they don’t pay enough for people to afford the constantly increasing rental rates. More and more local housing is being rented to folks who’s jobs are over the hill and building new housing is extremely challenging permitting wise. Another challenging factor for farms is that much of farm work is seasonal. Plants want to grow in the Spring and Summer, not the Winter, but people have needs year round. If we want to have a stable and good team of employees we need to provide year round work even if it’s fighting nature. Over the last 5 years we have slowly been working towards evening out the work load so we can provide more winter work. We’ve started regular pay increases for those who stick around. We’ve just started offering health care and paid sick days- up to 5 a year. All of our core crew make over $12/hr. But, it’s a conundrum. To keep good people on we are trying to provide better compensation and benefits, but increased labor costs have to be mitigated somehow: either we limit labor, or we increase prices. By improving our on farm systems we can reduce labor costs with capital investments, but there are limits to that. As we struggle to figure out how to do the right things we are finding ourselves butting up against other businesses who are willing to pay off the books, and produce prices at market that in some cases haven’t gone up in over a decade. Being transparent and completely honest with our customers is an important ethic for us, hence my sharing this with you. It’s easy to get behind better wages and working conditions for farm workers ( I certainly participated in my fair share of rallies in college). It’s a little more difficult to raise food prices in a competitive market and get customers to make the connection that what they pay for food is directly connected to what people who grow the food make.
We’re so lucky that our marketing outlets provide us an opportunity to communicate directly with the people who are eating the food we grow, so many farmers’ can’t do that. So here we are.. again so grateful to the folks like you who have committed to supporting a local farm for a whole season and who take an interest in understanding where their food is coming from. Thank you and I hope you take pride and feel good about your food choices, because they do matter very much to the 25 + people whose livelihoods depend on our farm.