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May 20, 2003

Specialist: Hiring farm laborers takes workmanlike effort

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Wanted: Experienced, responsible farm hand willing to work long, hard hours at fast-food wages.

Whether they realize it or not, many farmers are sending a message like this when they look to hire help, said a Purdue University agricultural economist.

Farmers often expect qualified people to jump at a chance to work on a farm, regardless of the pay, said Robert W. Taylor, a farm management specialist. Economic reality and a changing job market indicate otherwise, he said.

"On the farm, we have to be experts at a lot of things, and it's hard to be experts in human relations issues," Taylor said. "We dream we're going to find totally responsible, brilliant people who'll be leaping for joy to work at the minimum wage. You can guess that's not going to happen."

Taylor said hiring farm workers is itself a job, and farmers should take the time to do it right.

"It's not easy to find laborers. One of the huge advantages farmers have is that people do want to farm," he said. "There are people out there, and it's a matter of finding them. But you can't start at 9 a.m. on Monday and expect to have somebody hired by noon.

"In this business you have to think through very carefully what it is that you want from the person you'll hire. Do you want them to have a certain set of skills? Do you want them to work a specific amount of time? Then you should think through what you're ready to pay for them."

Taylor recommends farmers prepare a short statement or advertisement announcing the job they hope to fill, the skills that are needed and other pertinent information. The announcement should be placed in farm publications, on job listing bulletin boards at local colleges and on church bulletin boards.

"Also, tell the county Extension educator, ask your friends whom they know and talk to the local ag teacher," he said. "Get the word out a month in advance of when you expect to hire."

Despite a lukewarm economy, farm employment remains relatively steady, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In mid-January, 884,000 people were employed on the nation's farms and ranches, down 1 percent from January 2002. Of those employed, 724,000 were hired directly by farm operators.

Hired hands worked an average of 37.8 hours per week in January, compared to 38.5 hours a week in January 2002, according to the USDA. The average January 2003 wage was $9.32 per hour, up 35 cents an hour from the previous year.

Farm laborers in Indiana and other Eastern Corn Belt states worked an average of four hours less per week than the national average, the USDA reported. Eastern Corn Belt farm workers were paid 40 cents more per hour, however.

Farm wages are low, in part, because the hired hands themselves are less skilled, Taylor said.

"The only way that farmers can afford to pay very much for farm labor is to have those workers be remarkably productive," he said. "Being remarkably productive involves being motivated, knowing what to do, doing it right and doing it efficiently. When we look at wage rates on the farm that are just above the minimum wage, that means these workers are not being very productive.

"If we want somebody that can run the farrowing house or the combine and they can't, then we are putting ourselves at tremendous risk by hiring somebody who has never had that kind of experience."

While higher pay might attract better employees, they won't make a less-skilled worker more efficient, Taylor said.

"Taking a minimum wage person and paying them $45,000 a year does not solve the problem," he said. "There's powerful economics that says people ought to be paid on the farm roughly what they could earn somewhere else. And when you stop to think about it, why should you pay somebody 50 percent more than they could earn at the next-best job?

"On the other hand, why should a person work for you at half of what they could work for somewhere else? If a person is a skilled welder in a good machine shop, then they've got alternatives. If you want that kind of skill at your place, then you've got to pay for it."

Writer: Steve Leer, (765) 494-8415, sleer@purdue.edu

Source: Robert Taylor, (716) 549-1492, r9w8taylor@aol.com

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes, bforbes@aes.purdue.edu; http://www.agriculture.purdue.edu/AgComm/public/agnews/

Related Web sites:
Purdue University Department of Agricultural Economics
U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Labor Report


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