How to Win When Labor Is Short

Start Recruiting Now to Avoid Farm Labor Shortage During Planting Season

Katie Micik Dehlinger
By  Katie Micik Dehlinger , Farm Business Editor
In today's tight labor market, farmers are fighting the clock as well as rising wages to find the employees they need to successfully operate. (DTN file photo)

MT. JULIET, Tenn. (DTN) -- Labor shortages are abundant this year. Milk and meat processors don't have enough employees to run at full speed. There aren't enough truckers to move goods from ports to distribution centers. Many local restaurants are so understaffed they can't operate at full capacity.

The national unemployment rate stands at 4.8%, but there are 5.7 million fewer people working than in February 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some have permanently left the workforce, like Baby Boomers that opted to retire. Others cite childcare or ongoing health concerns as reasons for declining to work.

But what's clear is that those who are working are demanding more. At major food and agriculture companies, like John Deere and Kellogg, union workers have gone on strike, fighting for higher pay and better benefits as their companies post eye-popping profits.

"In my 20 years of working in human resources and recruiting, I've never seen such a significant jump in pay like we're seeing today. Sure, there have been industries that have gotten hot, but nothing quite like this, spanning across almost the entire economy," DTN HR Coach Lori Culler wrote in a recent column.

For farmers, it means the days of paying $16-$18 per hour for a farm operator are in the rearview mirror. In that column, she discussed farmers' options: pay higher wages or train less-experienced employees. (You can read it here:….)

Many farmers in need of employees struggle to even get someone in the door. Many have found themselves short on labor this harvest season and are looking at another tight situation come next spring.

Culler shares her advice on getting ahead of your labor needs in the edited Q&A below.

Q: If I'm short on labor this fall and anticipate I'll still be short-staffed next spring, what do I need to do differently this year?

A: If you're coming off harvest and need to hire for 2022, you almost can't get started soon enough after harvest. Usually, people start in January or February, but I think by that time, it's going to be too late. You need to start as soon as they're done harvesting, which sounds exhausting, right? Because you need to regroup a little bit. Before, we had this gap where you might go to your winter meetings, you might have the holidays and you had time to think about what you want. Then, you started acting on it sometime in January or February. This year, I would say start thinking about what you're looking for in a new hire and start talking to people a lot sooner. I would start about two months earlier than is typical.

Q: I'm starting to plan ahead. What should I be thinking about in terms of advertising and attracting the right candidates? I'm hearing a lot about hiring bonuses and the like. Is that a strategy I should consider this year?

A: It is. We're seeing hiring bonuses for technicians, like there is in the trucking world. I would say you really need to know your market, and we're going to talk about that at DTN Ag Summit. So, for example, here in Michigan, we've been talking around, and a regional truck driver -- a local, no overnight, regional truck driver -- is making $34 per hour. That is insane. One has said his pay has moved up $15 this year. Know what you're up against in your particular pocket of the country, and then make a determination. If hiring bonuses and pay needs to move up, what does that look like?

People are still looking for the stability and culture that farms offer. We still have that going for us, so you can't emphasize enough marketing your farm, marketing what it's like to work there, marketing why this particular job is so satisfying versus any job.

It's going to take a lot of early planning this year, and it's almost like you need to pre-plan your plans. Everything has to start earlier, and your planning has to go deeper than usual because you can't just advertise, put it out there and see what you get. You really need to do all the research ahead of time, know what you have to offer and know what the market has to offer in your area. And that means talking to people, talking to other businesses, talking to individuals in your community to figure out what the going rates are."


Editor's Note: Lori Culler grew up on a vegetable and grain farm and is the founder of AgHires (…), a national employment recruiting service and online ag job board based in Temperance, Michigan.

She will explain strategies farmers can use to win in the current labor market at the DTN Ag Summit in Chicago Dec. 6-7. For more details on her presentations as well as how to register, please visit

Katie Dehlinger