Farm worker shortages are already pervasive. What does that mean for the future of agriculture in Texas?

In the 1950s, 10% of American workers did agriculture work. Today, it’s less than 1%.

By Michael Marks & Sarah AschApril 22, 2024 9:10 am, ,

Texas’ population is growing, but the number of people working to grow our food is shrinking. 

This is part of a national trend. In the 1950s, about 10% of the American labor force did some kind of agricultural work. Today, it’s less than 1%. 

There have been technological advances in the last 70 years that mean, in some parts of farming, fewer workers are needed than used to. But there are also widespread labor shortages in the agricultural sector, and experts say if the causes behind these shortages aren’t addressed, they will continue to get worse. 

On Sapling Farms in southern Cooke County, not far from Denton, there is a “help wanted” sign hanging on the front gate. 

This is a small working farm that sells directly to consumers and to some wholesalers, as well as at farmers markets. Selvi Palaniswamy runs the farm with her daughter, Davika. 

In addition to several acres of vegetables and herbs, they now also raise cattle, chickens, and ducks. They’ve got beehives and a hydroponic system in a storage container. 

Palaniswamy said she would love to expand her operation, which she started in 2018, but it’s hard to find enough helping hands.  They have a couple of paid workers and some volunteers who help when it’s time to harvest. But it’s hard work. Sometimes, a new worker will show up for a day or two and then not come back.

Selvi Palaniswamy enjoying a moment on the farm with her dog. Courtesy of Sapling Farms

“That can be challenging cuz like time is so valuable,” Palaniswamy said. “And since we’re like a small market garden, sometimes it’s a lot to train someone and have them not show up after that.”

This problem isn’t unique to Sapling Farms. Farmers and ranchers have faced a persistent labor shortage for years. Through most of the twentieth century, as the number of Americans working on farms decreased, workers from Mexico increased. But in the twenty-first century, that’s changing too. 

Diane Charlton, an associate professor at Montana State University who studies where farm workers come from, has tracked this decrease.

“We found that the probability that individuals from rural Mexico were working in agriculture was decreasing by about one percent per year from 1980 to 2010,” she said. 

One percent doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s about 250,000 people a year. 

There are a number of reasons for this. Mexico is industrializing, and there’s increasing access to higher education there, so fewer people are going into farm work. At the same time, the Mexican immigrants who’ve traditionally worked on American farms are getting older. 

» Texas Standard special report: The Future of Work in Texas

Steve Hubbard, with the American Immigration Council, says to fill the gaps, more farmers are applying to bring in temporary workers through programs like the H-2A visa. It allows foreign workers to do a job on a specific farm before returning home.

“Nationally the demand for H-2A workers has increased from 225,000 in 2017 to over 370,000 in 2022. So that’s a 65% increase in demand. That’s across the country,” he said. ““If we look at Texas in particular, that number has tripled. … We see that demand also in the number of counties that are requesting workers internationally, that the number of counties increased.”

Experts, including Amy Liebman with the Migrant Clinicians Network, say there’s another reason people aren’t going into farm work: it’s getting hotter.

“Workers are just going to suffer significantly if there are not some immediate protections put in place to address the work in these hotter temperatures,” she said. “We’re experiencing these higher heat days, higher number of heat days.”

Palaniswamy also stressed that the heat was a big hurdle to finding workers. But another Texas farm is not having any problems finding workers – most of what they do is indoors. 

The inside of a large, warehouse-sized greenhouse is seen. Large grows of green lettuce stretches from the foreground of the image far into the back, contrasting with the white ceiling and poles that line the rows.

Renee Dominguez / Texas Standard

Revol Greens is a 20-acre indoor greenhouse located in Temple, TX. Fully grown lettuce heads are pictured inside the greenhouse.

John Carkoski, the VP of operations for Revol Greens, manages four greenhouses spread across the country from their facility in Temple. 

Their Temple site has growing ponds, which are rows of water sixteen inches deep, twelve yards wide, and two football fields long. They grow romaine, arugula, butter leaf and red leaf lettuce, all on these floating boards. Each board has its own information tag.

“These tags just show us where each of these go,” Carkoski said. “So what pond it’s in, what variety it is, what day it was seeded, what day it needs to be transferred on the ponds, what day it needs to be harvested.”

It takes 22 days to turn a seed into store-ready lettuce at Revol Greens. The place is really as much a factory as it is a farm. About 120 people work doing things like preparing packaging, harvesting heads of lettuce and fixing the equipment. There’s also a decent amount of automation. 

“When I started in Minnesota, everything was done by hand,” Carkoski said. “We had a whole team that was picking and moving, and (now a) machine is able to take care of that process for us.”

A man stands for a photo inside a warehouse-sized greenhouse with rows of green lettuce seen behind him. He's wearing a hair and beard net. This is John Carkoski.

Renee Dominguez / Texas Standard

John Carkoski, vice president of operations at Revol Greens, says the company's indoor horticulture model would need the necessary skilled labor to expand.

Some varieties of lettuce are harvested by machine, others require a person, because the motion is too complicated for a robot at the moment. 

Some experts think Revol’s model of indoor, technology-driven horticulture is going to become more common, especially as the effects of climate change intensify. But in order for that to happen, there will have to be more people like Carkoski who have the skills to manage that kind of operation.

“A lot of companies want a greenhouse manager who’s ready to run on the first day. We don’t have too many… the nation doesn’t have too many of those people, because as an industry it is still young,” said Joe Masabni, an associate professor and horticulturist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in Dallas. “We are developing a program that will take a little bit of engineering, a little bit of entomology, a little bit of horticulture, and develop a degree that will be, let’s say, called ‘controlled environment horticulture.’”

Eventually, Revol Greens hopes to automate up to 30% of the work done at the Temple facility. And in the future, if more people aren’t available to grow food for a living, more farms will lean into technology to get the work done – whether they’re indoors or outdoors. 

“If labor becomes sufficiently expensive, and if these technologies become more efficient, we will start to see robots harvesting some of our fruits,” Charlton said. 

A worker wearing hair nets, face coverings and gloves handles salad kits as trays of lettuce pass in front of him on a conveyor belt.

Renee Dominguez / Texas Standard

A packaging worker adds salad kits to the lettuce packs at Revol Greens on April 12, 2024.

Engineers are already working on machines to harvest strawberries and apples. They’re not very good yet, and once they are, they’ll be expensive. But in addition to taking the place of some workers, they’ll create new jobs for others.

“Someone has to maintain the robot, someone has to learn the software. So new jobs will be created in the industry,” Charlton said. “There will also be workers who are still working on the farm. And hopefully in the foreseeable future those jobs on the farm will be more comfortable than they were in the past.”

Another big part of this equation is how labor and immigration policy may shift. Experts said that certain changes could have a big impact on our ability to fill farm worker jobs. Liebman says in order to understand where we are now, we have to know how we got here.

“There’s been this long history of farm worker exceptionalism that has resulted in farm workers being basically under-protected and placed at a higher risk on their jobs,” she said.  

For example, the Fair Labor Standards Act established a minimum wage, set the 40 hour work week, and provided other protections. But farm workers were excluded. If we want people to work on farms, Liebman said we need to think about laws and policies like mandating water breaks and improving pay.

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Hubbard said improving immigration processes like the H-2A visa program would also be a welcome step.

“Some immigration reform, of course, is important. In particular on this issue, looking at the H-2A program, the temporary visa program,” he said. “How can we make it so we get quicker results as far as the turnaround time, so workers and farmers can get that information more quickly?”

Streamlining the process that allows farm workers to get to jobs, and making those jobs safer and better paid — and therefore more attractive — will help fill out our agricultural labor force going forward. 

That – and possibly more automation, too. It may not be that long before working on the farm means tinkering with the strawberry-picking robot. But even with new innovations, the goal is still the same: getting food to people’s tables.

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