Collaborative Solutions to Farm Labor Challenges: What is feasible?

How can small farmers attract and retain good workers, minimize their administrative burdens, and create new opportunities while doing so? What if a company could help small farmers across an entire region of the country meet their staffing needs, while at the same time covering administrative tasks from payroll to handling workers' compensation claims? What if this company could also guarantee farm workers year-round stability, either by connecting them with off-season jobs or providing them access to unemployment insurance? Further, what if this company gave both farm workers and farm owners the opportunity to take on leadership roles, or even invest and earn dividends? What if it helped farm owners capture social values that made them more enticing to workers and consumers alike?

As a group of partners in agriculture and academia, we have been gathering feedback on these solutions from both farm owners and farm workers through focus groups through a project supported by a Northeast SARE Novel Approaches grant. This report outlines the feasibility of collaborative solutions to labor challenges and proposes a path forward.

This report broadly refers to the proposed solutions as “collaborative labor solutions.” In some surveys and focus groups, the solutions were more specifically referred to as “Entity X” as part of a specific narrative used to solicit feedback. Broadly, in any collaborative labor solution, farms across a given region (possibly reaching across multiple states) would pool their resources into a new entity that would recruit and hire workers, distribute them across participating farms, and take care of the legal, financial, administrative, and Human Resources (HR) work involved in employing people. Farm owners would pay this entity an hourly rate per worker, and this would cover wages plus the entity's overhead. We used the shorthand “Entity X” to refer to this framework in our focus groups.

From there, the details of Entity X were meant to evolve to specific needs and desires. A collaborative labor solution could take the form of a farmer-owned cooperative, worker-owned cooperative, farmer-owned LLC, or a wholly separate temporary labor company. Depending on the structure and the specifics of the business model, farmers (and/or workers) could have the opportunity to invest—as well as the obligation of taking part in leadership and finding creative ways to generate a profit. Within any structure, participants would have to solve complex problems: balancing the scheduling needs of different farms, accounting for often unpredictable changes in those needs, ensuring the right balance of skills for different farms, maintaining fair wages, and providing housing and/or transportation for workers.

This guide discusses the understanding of producer and worker perceptions of labor problems and the potential for collaborative solutions and proposes a path forward.

Included in the guide is a discusion Toolkit for Farmers and fact sheets by Northeast state on the Basics of Farm Employment Law.


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