Ohio’s agricultural industry heavily depends on an ever-shrinking number of migrant workers from Mexico and Central America, many of them undocumented.
Labor shortages in agriculture are a decades-old issue, but this year stood out. It was the toughest year for staffing farm operations in at least two of the Ohio counties that hire the most migrant workers, Sandusky and Huron, according to Ohio State University Extension educators in those counties.
In Huron County, the top vegetable producing region in the state, one farming business ran 100 employees short this year; another was down by 60, says Bob Filbrun, manager of CFAES’ Muck Crops Agricultural Research Station in the county.
Several fields or partial fields in Sandusky County went unharvested because not enough staff could get to them before they rotted, says Allen Gahler, the county’s Extension educator. Crops such as tomatoes, cabbages and peppers need to be harvested right on time or they get overripe and spoil.
Desperate to fill orders for crops, some companies had to eliminate weeding in Huron County fields to focus on tending and harvesting their crop. As a result, weeds spread quickly, dispersing seeds and creating challenges for planting next year.
“Everyone is losing crops in the fields,” says Ben Wiers, owner of Wiers Farm in Huron County, which grows and sells 45 different types of vegetables. “When you don’t weed, you can’t harvest. The weeds choke out the crop.”
Wiers Farms recently upped its hourly pay and offered workers more opportunities to be paid piecemeal based on how much they harvest. Now the company’s average hourly pay is between $11 and $12, Wiers says. Even so, it’s still hard to find employees.
The company has had to slow its growth, holding back on launching any new vegetables until they’re more certain they’ll have people to plant, maintain and harvest them, Wiers says.
Working in the muck
Migrant workers in Huron County labor in the muck, a soil rich in organic matter that’s ideal for growing vegetables, but not so ideal to work in. The blackness of the muck radiates the sun’s heat and the constant wind kicks up the gritty soil that workers breathe, smell and wear all day.
Typically, migrant workers arrive in Ohio in May after having worked in southern states. But this year, some may have been reluctant to move from state to state or to come into the United States at all for fear of being stopped, Filbrun says.
Huron County hires the third highest number of migrant workers in the state, topped only by Sandusky and Lake counties, according to a 2012 report by the Ohio Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs.
Attracting native Ohioans to work in the muck seems nearly impossible in Huron County, where factory positions offer day shifts and air conditioning, and they pay about the same as the workers in the muck get paid, Filbrun says.
Businesses have the option of hiring H-2A immigrant workers, residents of foreign countries who are given a temporary work visa that typically coincides with the harvest seasons for the crops on which they work. But for small or mid-size farming operations, hiring H-2A workers is not feasible because they have to provide shelter and conduct a lot of paperwork that takes time away from running their businesses, Filbrun explains.
Part of the solution to the labor shortage is precision agriculture technology, which is farm machinery equipped with software, sensors and GPS guidance to know the soil conditions and topography of a given field, so the farmer can plant or weed accordingly, Filbrun says. For example, a tractor attachment can remove weeds, sensing the difference between the weed and the crop.
Although machinery — no matter how advanced — will not eliminate the need for laborers, it could reduce the need.
“Labor is always going to be an issue,” Filbrun says. “It may get worse. It might get slightly better, but it’s not going to go away.”
Besides the challenge of attracting farm laborers, keeping them can also be tough. That's partly because of misunderstandings that stem from different cultures, says Claudio Pasian, an associate professor of horticulture in CFAES.
Sometimes Latino laborers quit their positions rather than voice their frustrations or concerns, leaving the grower confused as to why they were discontent. Latino culture does not encourage an employee to advocate to someone higher-up in the chain of command, Pasian says.
“They will leave before confronting the boss,” says Pasian, a native of Argentina. “They don’t want to bring bad news to the boss because they’re afraid they’re going to be accused that it was their fault.”
Even making eye contact with a higher-up is considered rude to Latinos, he says. Seldom will they say they don’t understand what someone has said because in their culture, that might be considered rude, implying that the speaker was not clear in communicating.
Language differences can also be an obstacle even though more than half of communication is nonverbal — more about tone and facial expression, Pasian says.
Wherever they work, Latinos want to feel as if they’re part of a family, Pasian pointed out. They prefer starting conversations with small talk about the weather, say, or a soccer or baseball game, rather than the more American way of getting directly to the point.
Latinos working in the U.S. act in a way that their culture dictates, and yet they are expected to act according to the unwritten rules of the American culture, Pasian says.
“They’re asked to play a game, and they don’t know all the rules,” he says. “They play, but it’s a very difficult situation.”
At Wiers Farms, most of the supervisors are Latino, migrant employees are given free housing, and they can play soccer on the company’s soccer field or participate in the games played on weekends there.
But for farmers with 10 or fewer employees, offering those benefits would be too costly, Wiers says.
“I cannot deny the fact that the smaller you are, the more difficult it is.”