By Adrian Card
Winter is the dream time for crops farmers. The frozen soil here is a welcomed time for rest, recuperation from the struggles of the growing season and reflection on what needs adjustment and what new to implement as the soil thaws next year.
And oh, what a year for reflection!
Many Boulder County farms were forced to pivot in 2020 from restaurant and farmers market sales to increased existing Community Support Agriculture programs, strict farm stand protocols and/or to online sales platforms. Some CSAs indicate a customer increase of 400% and online sales were a boon for many local farm.
While none of these were easy, and all incurred some additional operating costs, it would appear that many local farms were able to pivot and end the year with anticipated or better-than-anticipated sales income.
The grand question is what, if any, of this consumer behavior will remain when, we hope, late summer of 2021 none of the COVID-19 protocols are needed? It seems our yearning for social gatherings will cause a rush on farmers markets. And maybe that means a decrease in farm CSA subscriptions and online sales, but that remains unclear.
In this reflection period, one perennial issue will likely get some time for farmer ponderings: Who will be part of my workforce in the future?
A February 2020 survey from the CSU Extension office in Boulder County exploring agricultural labor with Boulder County ag employers found 63% regarded housing for farm workers as a high or an extremely high business risk. With more costly housing compared to 10 years ago, 56% indicated their workforce cannot find affordable housing in Boulder County given employer perceptions of $800 being the maximum affordable rent. With 93% of ag employers indicating rent subsidies as a key solution, policymakers and local food enthusiasts should take note.
The logical answer from any well-intended observer is clearly, “pay more in wages.” However, all ag employers responding indicated they cannot pay more, and 69% are struggling to remain profitable with the wages they currently pay.
Quality of farm workers is also an issue. Many employers note they are unable to attract the talent needed through existing U.S. workers, and 60% of survey respondents are interested in employing H-2A farm workers while 7% already are.
This visa program allows international workers to come to the U.S. to work on a specific farm for less than 12 months before requiring them to return to their home country. Ag employers often find these workers highly motivated and embodying years of farm worker skill and know-how, often much more effective and efficient farm workers than their U.S.- born counterparts.
Employers must provide housing and travel for these workers and a specified number of hours at a wage rate above the Colorado minimum wage of $12. This adverse-effect wage rate, intended to function as a disincentive for not employing U.S. workers, is $14.26 for Colorado in 2021. That a majority of survey respondents are willing to offer more to source these foreign nationals for their workforce should tell us how challenging it is to recruit and retain a viable farm workforce in Boulder County.
As our farmers imagine a future workforce and the challenges of paying and housing them in Boulder County, what creative housing solutions can we bring to the table? Where are there housing assets that can be repurposed for local agriculture? What policy solutions can be mustered to bolster the cost of farming and ranching in the county with escalating housing costs?
Let’s dream this winter of creative solutions that embrace our innovative Boulder County spirit and that sustain local agriculture through and beyond the COVID-19 years.
Adrian Card is the agriculture extension agent for Colorado State University Extension Boulder County in Longmont.