Oregon growers use various strategies to find and keep the workers that are essential to running a successful nursery.
Oregon’s nursery and greenhouse industry has faced an uphill battle in finding and retaining workers. Future indicators show an even more difficult, bumpy road ahead.
Shortages in the state’s agricultural labor market have persisted over the past few years, spanning entry-level positions through technical and managerial staff. The causes run the gamut, from the failure of federal and state governments to reform immigration protocols, to declining interest in agriculture as a viable career choice among young people, and Oregon’s high cost of living.
“It can take months to find basic skilled labor and drivers, versus two or three weeks just two years ago,” said Leigh Geschwill, owner of F&B Farms in Woodburn, Oregon. “We have also been forced to conduct nationwide searches for higher level employees, at additional expense and time.”
Increased demand for product has some growers anxious about whether they can find enough workers.
“The nursery industry has gone through a period where everyone is coming out of a down cycle,” said Carlton Davidson, production manager at Carlton Plants. “Inventory was long in surplus, whether it was container, bare root or B&B, and there is a remarkable turnaround where inventory is now in demand. We’re also looking at competition from the valley’s increased production in other agricultural segments such as blueberries and filberts, and other industries such as construction and hospitality. All of this impacts the labor pool.”
Traditionally, nurseries have relied on word of mouth as their main recruiting method. The lack of applicants is prompting some to be more aggressive in their outreach.
At J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co., Art Anderson said the company now utilizes more radio and newspaper advertising for hiring than ever before.
“We do not see anywhere near the number of people coming in unsolicited looking for jobs that we used to,” Anderson said. “Now we have to play an active role in finding people as opposed to keeping tabs on opportunities for people looking.”
Training and retention
For the first time, many nurseries have had to hire contract crews. Other nurseries, such as Fisher Farms, have had to spend more time doing on-the-spot training of new employees.
“The challenge is that the workforce we have found has had no experience in the industry,” general manager John Coulter said.
That’s why many growers have beefed up their worker retention efforts.
According to Davidson, Carlton Plants now offers higher wages, opportunities for advancement and benefits such as health insurance, paid overtime and 401(k) profit sharing.
Going a step further, Carlton Plants tries to build a positive culture through things such as a company garden and hosting fiestas and picnics.
“I think those are small things that go a long way,” Davidson said.
Perhaps as a result, the nursery sees very little turnover in its permanent workforce.
Meanwhile, at JLPN Inc., owner John Lewis said the nursery provides generous bonuses to crew members who have earned a full-time position through good performance. Additionally, the nursery makes a point of promoting from within.
“We give the crew more hours, versus hiring more people, and according to our crews, it’s ‘good work.’ By that, the crew says that the work is easy, it’s not too hard,” Lewis said. “It doesn’t require a lot of heavy lifting, and we are able to work indoors during the bad weather, and outside when it’s nice. The automated equipment has made many jobs easier, and has eliminated 75 percent of the lifting of nursery trays in our production. That makes a difference to the way a person feels at the end of the day. I like to think we offer an environment that is fair.”
According to Lewis, JLPN Inc. has gotten creative when it comes to recruiting seasonal workers for certain tasks. Instead of trying to keep a small digging crew together for months, the nursery used the entire crew for harvest for just one or two days at a time. That allowed them to hire certain workers who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in digging trees full time.
“When it came to digging seedlings, which is one of the toughest jobs we have, we historically would set a crew of about 16 men outside, and the job would last several months,” he said. “We had high turnover on the crew, and around mid-harvest we would finally have a crew that was solid. We found that even though the job was tough, it wasn’t nearly as bad if we put 50 or 60 people on the job for a day or two at a time, versus week after week with a 16 man crew, and knocked out the entire harvest with a couple of big pushes in the field.”
For Anderson, the best way to find and keep workers is simple: provide a good workplace.
“Having a reputation as a fair, equitable and good employer and offering competitive wages is probably the best and most effective way to attract the labor pool that is out there,” he said.
Immigration reform: Coming soon?
The lack of comprehensive immigration reform is one factor often blamed for the inadequate number of nursery workers.
For years, industry groups such as the OAN and AmericanHort have been lobbying for reform, including border security, a path to legal status for undocumented residents and provision for an adequate labor supply.
Congress has come close, but it has not come through. In 2013, the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators proposed a comprehensive bill that would have addressed security, legal status of existing residents and future labor supplies. The U.S. Senate approved it, but then-Speaker John Boehner, under pressure from hardline immigration opponents, refused to allow a House vote.
For the future, prospects of reform are mixed at best. Current GOP leaders have said no bill will be moved under the current president.
It remains to be seen who the next president will be, and what the next Congress will look like. Depending on the 2016 election, the possible outcomes range from comprehensive reform that solves all the problems, to an enforcement-only approach that just makes matters worse for agriculture.
“Probably our biggest challenge is effective immigration reform and getting a guest worker program in place,” Coulter said. “This year is the first year we have had to contract with a labor company to be able to find workers. The H-2A program hasn’t worked in Oregon. It’s a bureaucratic process to get an H-2A program up and running, and in Oregon it’s never worked.”
Reform opponents say immigrants are taking jobs from Americans, but many nursery operators say that just isn’t so.
“We as a country need to recognize that there are many jobs our current population just won’t do,” Coulter said. “We need to be able to find enough qualified workers to fill these positions. It’s an issue in construction, in hospitality, in fast food, in all occupations.”