New York state farm operators can expect a tight labor market and rising wages in the year ahead, in addition to continued pandemic precautions, debate over immigration reform and potential changes to overtime pay, according to a Cornell agriculture expert.
“Ag labor is going to remain scarce due to … underlying demographics and labor market factors, even if we get immigration reform,” said Richard Stup, agricultural workforce specialist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and at Cornell Cooperative Extension. “Wages are going to continue to climb from both market and regulatory pressure.”
Stup offered his outlook for the sector during the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management’s 2021 Agricultural and Food Business Outlook Conference, held virtually Jan. 25. The conference also featured presentations on the outlook for the U.S. economy and for the dairy, fruit, vegetable and wine markets.
Long-term demographic trends have made it more challenging for farms to find workers, Stup said. Those trends include a more urbanized U.S. population, declining flows of new immigrants and – prior to the pandemic – unemployment near 50-year lows.
“The overall unemployment rate was so low, it’s no wonder farms are having a hard time identifying people,” he said. “People don’t show up at the farm office anymore just looking for work.”
Overall, roughly 11,000 New York farms employed nearly 56,000 workers in 2017, down from 61,000 in 2012, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. Fruit and tree nut farms accounted for 24% of the hiring, followed by dairy cattle and milk production at 22%.
Stup highlighted Pew Research Center data showing that unauthorized immigration, upon which the agricultural sector has relied heavily, declined nationally between 2007 and 2016, with New York experiencing the second-largest drop after California.
And among the estimated 11 million current unauthorized immigrants, according to Pew, 66% are long-term residents who have been in the country for more than 10 years. Stup said that was evident on many farms in the state, where unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the 1990s are now middle managers, have families and are established in rural communities – a different image from one many people have had over the years, he said.
“It’s important for us to upgrade that image and modernize that image of who the unauthorized immigrant workforce really is,” said Stup. “This industry is changing as we watch it.”
President Joe Biden is calling for comprehensive immigration reform, something the federal government hasn’t achieved since 1986, Stup said. At the same time, he said, legal hiring of temporary agricultural guest workers under the H-2A visa program has grown dramatically in recent years. New York’s 8,482 certified H-2A positions last year was more than double its total in 2012 and was in the top 10 nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
“I suspect it will continue to grow here in New York because of the continued demand,” Stup said.
Regarding wages, Stup noted that New York state is moving toward a mandatory $15 minimum wage. Long Island farms must pay at least $14 per hour this year and move to $15 next year, Stup said. The upstate minimum is now set at $12.50, with the timing of future increases uncertain.
Nationally, farm wages have grown at a faster rate than non-farm wages over the last 30 years, Stup said, but haven’t caught up, now representing about 60% of non-farm, non-supervisory wages. “There’s room to grow,” he said.
In addition to wages, Stup said New York farms will be closely monitoring any state action on overtime pay. Farm employers currently pay overtime for work in excess of 60 hours per week, not 40 hours as in most other sectors. A state wage board may consider lowering that threshold later this year, Stup said, a potential concern for growers with the highest labor costs, including vegetable farms, tree farms and nurseries.
New York’s farm workforce did an “outstanding job” complying with prevention measures and limiting the spread of coronavirus last year, Stup said, avoiding many of the outbreaks seen in other states.
“For the 2021 growing season, in spite of the fact that there will be vaccinations coming,” he said, “we're going to see a lot of the same restrictions … to protect the farm workforce going forward.”