Mid-Atlantic secretaries discuss region’s agriculture
PHILADELPHIA — Mid-Atlantic state agriculture secretaries roundly agreed labor issues topped the list as the region’s biggest challenge during the pandemic and farming’s most immediate challenge in the near future.
Moderated by Scott Sheely, president of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, agriculture secretaries from Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania shared insight on a variety of agriculture issues during a virtual panel discussion hosted by the PSPA on Jan. 6.
For Delaware and Maryland workforce challenges were acutely visible in the poultry industry’s processing plants.
“We had a very difficult time keeping an adequate workforce to keep those plants operational and it was probably the biggest challenge that that we faced.” Scuse said.
Bartenfelder said for Maryland, labor was the “number one challenge from COVID” and with much of the poultry industry on the Eastern Shore, staffing processing plants was the main challenge.
“It wasn’t just that the labor force was sick and out of work, it was that they feared getting sick if they came to work so it was a matter of making sure that there was a safety net there that they felt safe and secure once they got there,” Bartenfelder said.
Bartenfelder and Scuse both added fruit and vegetable growers and landscapers also struggled to keep workers.
In New Jersey, agriculture secretary Doug Fisher said the issue is ongoing.
“Everyone is facing a severe, severe crisis in terms of not being able to get that labor supply,” he said. “We’ve seen fields where they weren’t even picked because they couldn’t get enough field hands to do it and we’ve seen store shelves that are empty because they just can’t do it.”
“The fact that wages are continually going up and yet if this applies at the marketside the prices for farmers are not keeping up in some of these sectors with what they have to pay for some of the labor rates that they’re doing so there’s a big big squeeze.”
Fisher added there are some ag sectors that are doing well but “the big question is how do our farmers adapt in terms of what it is they grow and produce to be able to take advantage of capitalizing when these shifting trends come upon us.”
Fisher said getting state departments and federal government to coordinate to provide resources to farmers was a secondary challenge.
Redding said the labor issue was present well before the pandemic and along with people out due to COVID, the “great resignation” has impacted Pennsylvania greatly.
“We see folks who are retiring earlier they’re ready to step away or step into another industry we are in competition for the skills and competencies,” he said.
In addressing the shortages, the consensus among the secretaries was more farmers are looking at the federal H2A program or their labor needs which is putting more pressure on the federal program and also creating issues of competitiveness.
Bartenfelder said the Mid-Atlantic states are often at a disadvantage to southern states who have a lower wage rate requirement but are able to sell and deliver food throughout the east coast.
“You’re competing with those states when all other input costs are the same and continue to rise and you have you know $3 an hour wage difference or something like that really hurts farmers and producers ability in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to be able to be competitive price-wise with the other states and farmers in that business.”
Scuse said along with finding new workers every year, keeping existing employees remains a challenge.
“With the (poultry) plants alone we’ve had to provide all kinds of information on COVID testing the vaccinations we’ve had to provide it in four and five different languages it had to be creative on how to get the workers are vaccinated because it was a great reluctance to get vaccinated so we actually had to to look at bringing whole families and to get them vaccinated and protected,” Scuse said. “So it’s not just about getting an increased workforce but how do we keep the workforce that we have.”
Redding said he looks at the issue in three stages.
There’s the immediate need of farm labor and that takes advocating at the federal level to aid farmers in getting migrant workers but farther out is establishing and growing apprenticeships and building career pathways for people.
Education about agriculture in schools and to the public is the third area showing what opportunities are available.
Sheely then moved the conversation to technology in agriculture.
Scuse lead off with the right-to-repair issue where farmers want to be able to repair on their own precision agriculture instruments in new equipment.
“They’re spending two $300,000 on a tractor five $600,000 on a combine and they don’t have the ability to work on that equipment themselves they have to call the dealer or take that equipment back to the dealer because you have to have codes in order to work on that equipment so you know that that’s a major issue because there’s a high cost now for these companies to come out and work on your equipment $100 an hour and up,” Scuse said. “The technology is great but if you can’t access that technology to work on that equipment yourself it’s a big financial impact for our producers.”
All the secretaries agreed expanding rural broadband access was a crucial need for farmers.
Fisher said even in the most populated state in the country, it’s an issue in certain areas.
“The difficulty for us is that we’re not considered rural and yet you all know that we have areas in New Jersey that are as rural as Kansas in terms of what they grow and how they live and so our challenge is to make sure that we are working towards making sure that it’s rolled out across the entire state,” Fisher said.
Redding said beyond technology in equipment, using it to establish an animal identification program for biosecurity is necessary.
“We need a national policy and nationwide standard. The risk of African Swine Fever high-path AI — pick one of your emerging diseases — we are so susceptible and vulnerable without that traceability from technology,” Redding said.
When Sheely asked what areas the state departments need to work together on, Scuse brought the conversation back to labor.
“Historically we do not have anywhere near enough H2A workers in this country,” Scuse said. “There’s a cap and we need to work together to get that cap substantially increased to ensure an adequate workers supply across the whole United States.”
The states all have need for more skilled trade workers, too.
“We do not have enough diesel mechanics we do not have enough welders we do not have enough technicians in agriculture now in our workforce for the needs that we have and I think it’s something that we all can work on together,” Scuse added.
Fisher said the state departments can advocate for more Farm Bill funding for support of specialty crop growers and better access to those crops.
“The whole country needs to understand that specialty crops is pretty much everything we grow besides the major row props in this country and so when the next Farm Bill comes out I believe we need a much larger allocation so that we can move these monies to fruits and vegetables which everyone is talking about getting into our lives in food deserts and food justice and in so many areas in our lives and in our states that the understanding that specially crops is way more than what it sounds like,” Fisher said. “And it’s actually where much more money should be flowing so that we can do these policies that are in the front of everyone’s agenda in these states in terms of many of the areas of policy that are evolving currently.”
Bartenfelder said states need to continue to coordinate advocacy for more federal funds for Chesapeake Bay restoration.
Bartenfelder has hosted meetings between the agriculture departments of the bay watershed states that have been very beneficial in working together.
“It turned into an all day type event where we discussed what our problems are what, what’s facing our different states and how we could work together so that effort’s already been underway and we can do it again and work together to better achieve our goals,” Bartenfelder said.
Fisher added enhancing food security and promoting farming practices that mitigate climate change as two more areas states can unite around.
In terms of what’s most needed in federal agricultural policy, responses were varied.
Scuse said clarification in the budding carbon credit market is crucial to that effort in climate change mitigation being successful.
“How’s it going to work how are farmers going to be able to participate and how are we going to sell those carbon credits? Scuse asked. “Right now there’s a great deal of interest but there’s no clarity. Whether you talk to Congress or USDA or EPA everyones going off in different directions as well as private industry. You’ve got companies going in different directions so they’re really does need to be some clarity on how agriculture is going to participate.”
Redding said creating a workforce title within the Farm Bill would go a long way to address agricultural labor issues and Bartenfelder seconded Redding’s and Scuse’s points but added increased federal funding toward Pennsylvania’s Bay cleanup work is a priority for the whole restoration effort.