Dave Petrocco spent last fall watching on average about 10 employees leave his vegetable fields each week, never to return.
He would then begin a weekly search for 10 new faces, with each infusion of new workers requiring time-consuming training.
Many would only last a couple of weeks — if that long.
In struggling to keep enough hired hands out on his 2,600 acres of farm ground that stretch from Brighton to north of Greeley, Petrocco estimates that, when all was said and done, his operation was unable to harvest about 10 percent of its crops in 2011 — about $150,000 in lost production.
With this year’s harvest still under way, Petrocco doesn’t know yet what the losses in 2012 might amount to.
What he does know is that so far this year he’s had even more trouble finding workers than he did a year ago.
“It’s probably the biggest challenge we face,” Petrocco said of agriculture operations finding enough help. “And it seems like the problem is a little worse each year.”
Like Petrocco, other local producers — particularly vegetable growers and dairymen — have had trouble in recent years finding workers who will stick around.
And Weld County producers aren’t the only ones facing labor shortages. The Western Growers Association in California — an organization in the most ag-productive state in the U.S. — recently reported a 20 percent drop in laborers this year.
Anticipating continued worker shortages, Petrocco said he’s considering planting fewer acres in 2013.
From May to September, Petrocco — who grows onions, lettuce, green beans, cabbage and turnip, collard and mustard greens — needs about 300 people out on the ground, pulling weeds during the growing season and, as fall rolls around, harvesting the crops by hand.
But right now, Petrocco says he’s about 25 percent short on field workers — having lost many of his high school helpers when the school year recently started.
He knows the field work isn’t easy; it requires a lot of stooping over during the hottest part of the year.
“It takes a conditioned worker, so not everyone can do it,” he said. “But there’s even fewer people who are willing to do it.”
While the work is difficult, it’s also seasonal, which isn’t appealing to the many people seeking full-time employment.
And recently, Petrocco and others say local farm laborers have been lured away from agriculture by more lucrative opportunities with expanding oil and gas companies.
“They can leave here and go make $17 an hour, and I can’t compete with that,” Petrocco said, noting that he pays field workers about $8 an hour. “I’d love to pay my workers more, but the profitability in vegetable production just isn’t there.”
Harry Strohauer, a LaSalle-area farmer who said it’s been a struggle for him in recent years to fully staff his potato-packing shed, agreed with Petrocco. He said producers can’t match the wages offered by the petroleum industry.
“We want to pay our workers more, but we don’t have the ability, like other industries, to just increase our prices and pass those added costs along to the consumer,” Strohauer said, explaining the complexities of commodity prices and the food industry, which goes along the annual bottom-line uncertainties of increasing fuel and input costs for producers, as well as the weather. “It can be pretty complicated for us in agriculture.”
With local people able to find better paying jobs or just not wanting to do the work, producers say they desperately need access to foreign workers, who are capable and willing to do the job.
But that access isn’t there, producers say.
The federal government offers the H-2A Visa program, which allows foreign workers entry into the U.S. for temporary or seasonal agricultural work. However, most don’t use the program because it’s too expensive, with requirements like providing housing for the workers, and it has too much red tape.
Petrocco used the program a couple years ago, but stopped because of those very reasons. He estimated that initial costs alone in bringing a worker here through the H-2A program was about $3,000 per person.
Additionally, the H-2A program doesn’t help dairymen, because dairy operations don’t need seasonal workers — they need help year-round, as was explained by Mike Veeman, a dairyman and farmer who has operations in Weld and Morgan counties.
Veeman — like Strohauer, Petrocco and other producers — say there’s a need for immigration reform.
Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar, along with agriculture commissioners from all 50 states, have put their support behind the Utah Compact, a piece of legislation in that state that would allow unauthorized foreigners in the U.S. to attain a two-year work permit, as long they pass a background check, prove they’ve been working in the U.S., pay a fine for being here illegally and pay any necessary back taxes. In addition to attaining a work permit, the Utah Compact would allow that worker to keep his or her immediate family members all living together.
With 2012 serving as an election year and Congress struggling to pass a Farm Bill, Salazar has said he doesn’t see any action on the issue taking place this year, but said there’s now enough attention on the issue that discussions could begin in 2013.
In addition to the labor shortages locally and in states like California, the problem has been even worse in states that have tightened their belts on immigration, like Georgia and Alabama, where billions in agricultural production were lost in 2011.
“It’s certainly time for something to change,” Veeman said.