Marking the transition from summer to fall, Americans celebrate Labor Day with parades, picnics, barbecues and festivals.
For many, including the Stone family, the day signals that children will head back to school. My oldest daughter will enter her junior year at Western Oregon University and my youngest will kick off her senior year at Wilson High School. My wife Jenn will head all over the state helping families chart their path to college access — and speaking of kickoffs, for me, Labor Day means college football season is upon us.
But Labor Day has a much richer history than our main interactions with it would indicate — not to mention a deeper meaning.
Gathering storm clouds
The 53rd Congress passed the Labor Day holiday into law in 1894 in response to a very tumultuous time in worker-employee relations.
During the post-Civil War decades that later came to be known as the Gilded Age, the economy was undergoing seismic shifts. Agriculture was giving way to manufacturing as the nation’s primary economic driver. Workers were organizing for an eight-hour day, better pay, the abolition of child labor, and workplace rights. Unions were coming into their own. There were violent clashes. Meanwhile, immigration was surging, as higher wages in America attracted European immigrants.
In 1870, almost 50 percent of the U.S. population was employed in agriculture. Today, that is less than 2 percent, but agriculture is more productive than ever. We’re producing far more goods with fewer operations and far fewer workers.
Which is why right now we are facing a labor crisis of our own — one quite different than that of the 1890s.
The magical disappearing farm
Ag relies on a mix of self-employed farm operators, their families and hired workers. All of these have been in long-term decline, as rising agricultural productivity due to mechanization has reduced labor needs.
The family farm is becoming scarce. According to data from the National Agricultural Statistical Service’s (NASS) Farm Labor Survey (FLS), the number of self-employed and family farmworkers declined by 73 percent from 7.60 million in 1950 to 2.06 million in 2000. Over this period, average annual employment of hired farmworkers — including on-farm support personnel and those who work for farm labor contractors — declined from 2.33 million to 1.13 million. That’s a 52 percent reduction.
This trend might surprise most Americans, but it probably won’t shock anyone involved in farming. Nonetheless, it justifies some alarm.
The graying of agriculture
When I write about labor, I usually discuss our lack of a functional immigration system. Last year, Congress had the chance to pass an immigration package that had many of the elements needed to sustain the agricultural industry. It was far from perfect, but it would have addressed our OTHER labor problem — one that fewer folks are talking about — and that would be the graying of agriculture.
The longtime agricultural worker is not being replaced. The average worker is 41. The average farmer is 60. Today’s agricultural operators need to address this, but don’t enjoy a robust set of options.
The federal H-2A agricultural visa program — intended to provide labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature — is a Band-Aid solution at best. For years, the program has not been a good fit for Oregon or the West. It is costly, requires transportation and housing, and is not flexible enough to accommodate production schedule changes due to unanticipated factors like the weather. It is designed to supplement a workforce, not replace it. However, desperate times have forced nurseries to give it another look.
On a national scale, the number of H-2A positions requested and approved has increased fivefold in the past 13 years, from just over 48,000 positions certified in 2005 to nearly 243,000 in 2018, according to USDA. That’s one of the clearest indicators that farm labor is scarce. The average duration of work for this program is little over five months. Many nursery and greenhouse employers operate year-round. For them, it’s no cure-all.
A standing eight count
All of the agricultural trade association executives in Oregon understand the threat a lack of labor poses to our diverse industries. We work in tandem to seek solutions in the face of aging ownerships and workforce, a lack of a visa system that provides an adequate workforce and the endless employer mandates that make us less competitive.
We are like a boxer who keeps getting knocked down and continues to get up — a continual standing eight count — to fight on.
State and federal policymakers need to grasp that continued inaction on labor will eventually result in many farms not being able to continue. Oregon is #1 in the nation for Christmas trees, hazelnuts, black raspberries, ryegrass seed, orchard grass seed, crimson clover, sugar beets for seed, red clover seed, fescue seed, blackberries, boysenberries, potted azaleas, and peppermint. We rank #2 in the United States for the production of hops, blueberries, and pears.
We are a specialty-crop state with more than 220 recognized commodities generating a farm gate value of $5.7 billion (2015), making it a top economic driver in the state. About 80 percent of Oregon’s ag production leaves the state, and 40 percent leaves the country. Oregon ag and food products are the second-largest export sector in terms of value, the first in terms of volume.
Lending your voice
As we celebrate the dedication and importance of the agricultural labor force, it is time to lend our collective voice to work together to meet the labor needs in the future. Our leaders must recognize that in order to have a Labor Day — we actually need labor.