Saunders cites labor as ag’s top concern
SOMERSET, Va. — Much attention in the agricultural labor discussion falls on workers who harvest and pack food out of the fields. But one Virginia orchardist said he is more concerned about filling mid-level management positions in the coming years to keep his family business operating efficiently.
No matter the position, Jim Saunders, who handles personnel matters at Saunders Brothers Farm Market in Piney River, Va., said labor is the No. 1 threat to profitability.
“If we don’t have any labor, we can’t run our business,” he said to a gathering of members of the Virginia Agribusiness Council at its annual meeting on Oct. 30.
Kyle Shreve, executive director of the council, echoed the importance of the issue.
“Labor is something I’ve heard from each and every one of our members when I’ve asked, ‘What do you need?’” he said.
Saunders said qualified truck drivers are especially hard to find and many of his supervisors and managers are nearing retirement.
“How do we replace these guys? That’s my main concern,” Saunders said.
Saunders has worked through the federal H2A guest worker program for 21 years and said while it can be tedious with paperwork and changing regulations, it’s working in supplying most of the farms 160 employees each year.
“That’s the only way we’ve found that we can meet our labor needs,” Saunders said.
Regarding truck drivers, Saunders cited American Trucking Association statistics that there is currently a trucker shortage of about 60,000 and in five years, it’s expected to rise to 100,000 truckers needed.
Aside from those positions on the farm, Saunders said managers in irrigation, maintenance and plant and crop production are needed too.
These positions don’t all necessarily require a college degree but a high school diploma as strong work ethic are.
“It’s not rocket science but it’s mid-level management that we need,” Saunders said.
Saunders said he’s focusing more on internships as a way to evaluate a mid-level employees’ dedication.
“After three months we can say ‘It’s been fun but goodbye,’” Saunders said.
He said one skill he wants all employees to demonstrate is being able to work in a team setting. “It’s critical they be able to work in an environment with a team.
“To me, it’s critical that we operate in a team atmosphere so we can meet these challenges together,”
For higher-end labor positions in the nursery industry, Kerry Scott, H2A program manager at Mas Labor, said the TM Visa program brings Mexican and Canadian college graduates to fill nursery positions.
Averaging about 90 days to process, Scott said his company has supplied many engineers to Texas oilfields and technicians establishing G5 networks, but in the nursery industry, head growers, assistant growers and labor managers are in demand.
He said in these cases, it’s not necessarily a lack of skilled domestic workers but American employees at that level tend to be “resume builders” moving to a new job after a few years, while employers want someone for a longer period.
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