Pay Perspectives

Farm wages pressured by growth rates and performance expectations.

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We are in the midst of a talent struggle in ‌‌agriculture. With the national unemployment ‌‌rate at an all-time low, we are not the only ‌‌industry that’s facing challenges finding and attracting top-quality candidates. More than three-quarters of hiring managers and recruiters say they are struggling to find hires across all industries. The compensation we have historically paid on farms is no longer bringing in the quality of hires needed for strong performance.

There are two primary reasons driving the big disconnect between what we are looking to pay today and what you get at that pay range.

GROWTH RATE. The first reason is wages have been increasing at a faster pace than in the past because of low unemployment. In 2018 alone, we saw a 2.8% increase in wages across all sectors. Since November 2016, the two biggest job gainers across all industries are mining and logging, followed by the construction industry at the No. 2 spot, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

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With a multitude of available jobs and only so many great hires to go around, the pay levels we have seen in the past just don’t align with the market.

At AgHires, we’ve seen a significant increase in wages the past five to seven years. According to the BLS, the mean annual wage for those listed as farm, ranch and other agricultural managers (not first-line supervisors/assistant manager roles) in 2017 was $80,310. Agriculture has seen wage increases depending on the sector within the industry of 3 to 3.5% on average the past 10 years. This aligns with what we are seeing with our clients. Depending on the operation’s size, complexity and diversity of crops, salaries for farm managers who are leading operations range from $75,000 to six figures.

EMPLOYEE REQUIREMENTS. The second reason driving up wages on farms is due to the fact that what we are looking for in employees has changed. We are no longer simply looking for a driver or a farmhand. We are looking for thinkers who can add value, understand technology and solve problems. Technology enables us to work with leaner teams, but to stay competitive, those hires need to come with higher level competencies. To attract someone at a higher level who brings the behaviors, mind-set and experience needed, the hourly rate must be increased to attract and retain those candidates.

During these current down ag market times, I realize every dollar spent needs to be justified. When you consider paying a $16-per-hour employee who isn’t bringing to the table what you are looking for compared to a $20-per-hour employee who adds more value, you are looking at a $12,000 cost differential (estimating 2,500 hours per year and taxes). We often look at the cost of just the employee, but what other costs are incurred when you hire a subpar candidate?

What are we to do with this information? As farmers, we can do what we do best: Be innovative. When it makes sense, adjust the wages to align better with the market. When it’s necessary to stick to a budget, think outside the box with younger candidates or individuals from other industries who can be trained. Look to hire relatable skills in individuals with the right characteristics who can get up to speed quickly. You could also develop an incentive program to increase the overall compensation package without having to increase the base wage.

We have a lot to offer in agriculture. In general, the candidate pool is looking more for cultural fit and family-owned companies than ever before. We can offer that on the farm. We are in an industry where individuals see their impact and spend time outside. Use that as an advantage point to attract talent.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lori Culler grew up on a vegetable and grain farm, and is founder of AgHires (aghires.com), a national employment recruiting service and online ag job board based in Temperance, Michigan. Email her at
lori@aghires.com.

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