Farm Labor Management on Small-Scale Farms: Seeking Sustainable Options

Posted: February 23, 2010

In the “three-legged stool” of sustainable agriculture, the environmental leg often receives the most popular and academic attention. But in order for farmers to operate in ways that are ecologically sustainable, they must also consider the economic and social implications of their farm management practices. The employment and management of hired farm workers raise critical questions for small-scale farm operators with regards to the economic viability of their farms as well as the social sustainability of their practices.

My thesis research explores how small-scale and mid-sized fruit and vegetable growers consider these important questions. The goal of this research is to better understand how small-scale, seasonal farmers address the problem of maintaining an adequate workforce throughout the production cycle and from year to year. My main research questions are 1) How are small and mid-sized farm operators managing their labor resources in order to accomplish work on their farms? and 2) How do their personal perceptions and experiences inform their decisions regarding farm labor management?

I have addressed these questions through a qualitative study that draws primarily from in-depth interviews with 15 fruit and vegetable growers in Central Pennsylvania. Purposive sampling techniques were used to select participants using the criteria of farm size, commodity, and the employment of hired workers. For the purposes of this study, the number of hired workers determines farm size. Fruit and vegetable growers were selected because of the seasonal and labor-intensive nature of horticultural production. All interviews took place at the farm or home of participant growers and lasted from one to two hours. Each participant also completed a brief questionnaire that was designed to capture background information regarding farm size, primary commodities, farm income, off-farm income, and number and types of hired workers.

Preliminary findings of the study indicate that there is considerable variation in the ways individual farmers manage labor and how their workforces are comprised. Farmers encounter various limitations and opportunities depending on their unique farm contexts and their own personal values. Structural or biological elements, as well as personal attitudes, influence the ways farmers make labor management decisions.

Structural limitations describe social conditions that are beyond the individual farmer’s control. For example, local communities may or may not offer farmers access to a reliable labor supply. Some growers in my sample expressed that they were satisfied with the availability and quality of local help. These farmers were able find local residents to fill their labor needs, sometimes drawing from more than one demographic group including high-school or college students, retired adults, “stay-at-home moms,” and other adults with flexible working schedules. Other growers felt they were not able to find enough workers locally and turned instead to non-local labor sources including migrant or immigrant workers and apprentices or interns who come from other areas.

A significant biological limitation, of course, is the seasonal nature of most agricultural work. Farmer interviews reveal that some farmers are consciously adapting their farm businesses to accommodate the off-season employment needs of their workers. This includes strategies like extending the growing season with early spring and late fall crops and providing winter jobs like cutting firewood or maintaining farm buildings and equipment. Some farmers described how they intentionally keep their businesses at a small size so that they do not need to rely excessively on hired, non-family workers.

Finally, personal values and attitudes clearly do help shape growers’ labor management decisions. For example, although the diversity of farm tasks on small-scale fruit and vegetable farms often necessitates daily interaction between farmers and their employees, participant growers described different kinds of interactions and different levels of comfort with these interactions. Some farmers said that they try to treat employees as they would family members. Specific instances of this family-oriented approach include birthday parties, annual picnics, daily shared meals, on-farm housing, and in-kind benefits like free produce. Other respondents seem more protective of their privacy and the distinction between boss and employee. Some growers, for instance, expressed reservations about having hired workers live on the farm because such an arrangement might disrupt their own families’ interactions.

These preliminary findings highlight how farmers develop their management styles in response to both internal and external factors. It is evident that because of these various influences, growers have to be flexible and creative in the ways they manage their labor resources. This can cause considerable uncertainty and anxiety as they deal with these complex labor issues year after year. In fact, all of the respondents in this study placed labor at or near the top of their list of major annual concerns in farm management.

Findings from this research can find direct application on farms and in agricultural extension programming. Small-scale farmers often lack significant information regarding labor options or insight into shared labor management problems and solutions. This study offers useful examples of strategies and experiences that have been more or less successful for growers in similar circumstances. Furthermore, this research contributes to the discussion of farm sustainability by promoting labor management options that are economically and socially beneficial for farmers and workers alike. If this kind of labor management is achievable, it can, in turn, have positive effects on local communities and landscapes by keeping small farms in business and on the land.

By Audrey Schwartzberg, Rural Sociology Graduate Student