"There’s a real risk of farms moving from vegetable production because of labor shortage"

As a recent article in Real Agriculture pointed out, due to COVID-19 restrictions, some fruit and vegetable farmers in Canada are experiencing a labor shortage. “There’s a real risk of farms moving away from vegetable production on a large scale in 2021, although right now, no one is brave enough to put a number on the estimated pull-back in production,” stated Lyndsey Smith.

Since a labor shortage has been growing in the United States as well, we wanted to check in with a few experts on this side of the border and see if they anticipate the same problem in the greenhouse industry. Charlie McKenzie, who most of you know from his podcast Crop Talk, is one of the founders of Crop Walk, a full-service IPM consultancy. Charlie discusses Ag with growers on a daily basis and offered his insight.

“It seems like indoor agriculture will see a production increase in 2021, especially in produce, ornamentals, and Cannabis, where outdoor agriculture will see stagnation or even reduction, more outdoor farmers I talk to are reducing production this year compared to last,” Charlie suggested.

As for the impact of COVID-19 on production due to a labor shortage he had a different perspective.

“I think indoor production will face unique challenges related to labor. With higher scrutiny over labor practices for working in enclosed spaces, facilities might see increased challenges & costs associated with the employment and management of labor. Thus, they will probably be looking towards automating processes and improving efficiencies.

Bob Jones, Jr. runs The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, and has been providing microgreens to chefs and consumers for over 30 years. As soon as the pandemic hit, Bob pivoted instantly and made those same microgreens available to the public.

“I expect 2021 to be a stronger sales year than 2020. Our customers are a blend of restaurants and home consumers and the home consumer business continues to grow while we’re seeing the restaurants starting to come back online,” Bob explained. “We have a supply of labor and relationships that we’ve had with people in Mexico and we’re not bringing everyone in this year. We will always be a hand harvesting operation; mechanical harvesting can’t duplicate the attention to quality that well-trained people can.”

Dr. Marc van Iersel is a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia and works very closely with both the outdoor and indoor farming community. Dr. Van Iersel offered a fascinating insight and focused on greenhouse staffing instead of the immigration/visa issue.  

“A lot of the labor problems in the greenhouse in Canada are largely due to the pressures of cannabis production,” he noted. “People are switching over from tomatoes and cucumbers to cannabis. We in the U.S. don’t have the same kind of legal production and the requirements for a CEA facility here almost force you to build new facilities. It doesn’t seem to be taking away a lot of existing greenhouse space.”

When I followed up and asked him if he forecasts 2021 food production being down from 2020, he replied without hesitation, “No. I don’t think so.”

Whether or not labor pressures and greenhouse changeover increase significantly in the United States as cannabis becomes legal in more states is certainly debatable. While newer greenhouse operations are more efficient due to technology such as AI and the use of robotics, as of now produce production is already up this January from last year and there are no signs that the trend will change.

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