Greenhouse Grower‘s 2017 State of the Industry Survey revealed that grower investment in technology is imminent, with 46% saying they plan to buy equipment in 2017. After structures and coverings (50%), growers said they plan to spend the most in irrigation equipment (30%), computer technology (26%), and planting equipment (16%).
Growers say they are investing in mechanization to improve efficiency (68%), due to the cost of labor (49%) and the availability of labor (47%), to expand their growing operations (33%) and to allow employees to concentrate on other areas (30%).
Although it ranked third among growers’ concerns, labor availability and the difficulty in recruiting and retaining educated, qualified growers is anecdotally an enormous concern among growers.
“Many facets of our industry cannot be mechanized, and until consumers are willing to pay more for horticultural goods, keeping labor costs down, while staying competitive with other industries, is going to continue to be more difficult,” a grower said.
“The labor pool is small and no one wants to do the hard jobs anymore,” another grower commented. “Our choices for qualified and dependable labor are next to none. We have to overpay an unqualified employee to get one to ‘work.’”
Most of the growers reporting said they don’t use the H-2A program (96%); however, the majority of those who don’t use it are small and medium growers, while 17% of large growers use the program. This is likely due to cost.
However, some growers are concerned that impending immigration reform and deportations will cause an even bigger labor availability problem.
“The truth is that foreign labor is practically our only option,” a grower said. “Most Americans do not want to work this hard.”
Fifty-three percent of growers are promoting people that have worked up through the rankings from within their operations as a result of not finding college-educated growers, and 23% said they plan to do this.
“The future of our company depends on young growers, and we cannot find young adults that will dig in and do the work. They want to be on the computer,” a grower said.
The current labor shortage is amplified by the attraction of growers to other growing industries, like cannabis production. Growers in states where it’s legal are seeing an exodus first hand.
“Finding employees and growers can be a difficult task, especially here in Colorado, where marijuana is legal to grow and everyone wants to work in that industry,” a grower shared. “People from our industry are leaving to work for (cannabis producers). We as an industry need to be competitive with salaries and benefits.”
Labor in the industry and grower profitability is a concern among many suppliers. They say improved pricing would positively affect growers at all levels of production.
The lack of qualified help, for instance, “goes back to profitability,” said a supplier. “If you want professionals, you have to pay professional wages.”
The number of students enrolling in horticulture programs is one of the questions researcher respondents to the survey said growers ask of them most often.
“Training and retaining intelligent and passionate employees who have initiative and can integrate with more mechanization and computerization [is an issue],” a researcher said.