Farmers are constantly challenged by factors outside their control — too much rain or not enough, too hot or too cold, insects and trade wars — but increasingly in north Alabama their greatest challenge is access to labor.

That it's the flip-side of a booming economy does not make the tight labor market less of a problem for agriculture, the state's largest industry and one that accounts for more than 35,000 jobs in Morgan, Lawrence and Limestone counties.

“Right now, there is a shortage of quality ag workers. We are needing people who have a desire to be farm workers, but we’re fighting the stigma attached to being farm labor," said 62-year-old farmer Sam Spruell of Mount Hope, who farms 6,000 acres in six northwest Alabama counties including Lawrence. "Everyone is looking to work eight hours a day with big pay in an office and going home. This farm without employees is nothing. Once you get more acres than you can do yourself, you’re at the mercy of the labor.”

The Alabama Business Council and Alabama Cooperative Extension System report that $70.4 billion and 580,295 jobs are tied to agriculture, including forestry and related industries, making agriculture the No. 1 industry in the state. According to the Alabama Department of Commerce, the growing automotive industry, including suppliers, totals a workforce just shy of 40,000 statewide.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently reported Alabama’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for September was down to a record 3%, or 2.5% not seasonally adjusted and thus comparable to county rates. Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence counties had jobless numbers in September ranging from 2.1% to 2.5%.

Lawrence County row cropper Brian Glenn, who tends to about 2,000 acres, mainly cotton, wheat and soybean, said he doesn’t employ many but it’s hard to find the right person for the job.

“It’s been a long, long time since I have had somebody pull up at my door and ask if I had some work for them to do,” he said. “We’ve always had a problem finding help. And when the unemployment level is low like it has been lately, it’s putting a lot of us in a hardship. Often it’s not about the pay, but about the long hours and hard work. When the economy is good, corporate America starts looking better to a lot of the people looking for work.”

The tight labor market squeezes agriculture more than most industries, experts say.

“Farm work is hard work, and you’ve got to find those people who will work hard and sometimes have long hours,” said University of Alabama economist Ahmad Ijaz. “You’ve got to pay those people to keep them.”

Of his dozen employees currently harvesting cotton and peanuts, Spruell says he pays, with benefits, between $35,000 and $65,000 annually.

“We pay by the hour, overtime, with vacation packages,” he said. “We have to be able to compete with the companies on the river. But when they open up Mazda Toyota hiring and the allied companies, we’ll all lose more quality workers.”

Tech skills

Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA in Limestone County plans to employ about 4,000 workers when production at the auto manufacturing plant begins in 2021. Industrial development officials expect Tier I and II suppliers to create an additional 5,000 to 8,000 jobs. Technological advances in agriculture mean farmers and automotive plants increasingly value the same skills in their employees, and that sets up a competition that the ag industry rarely wins.

“We need people with mechanical skills,” Spruell said. “Those things used to be taught in shop class at high school. We’ve probably done a poor job of keeping younger guys and girls interested in ag vocational work.”

Spruell and other farm owners said they struggle to find workers who have a passion for agriculture and aren’t afraid to push buttons on a computer in a tractor cab. They say the optimal farm worker is somebody who can be a mechanic, plumber, electrician and computer operator.

“You can’t put someone in a field operating a $750,000 cotton harvester, who doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Spruell said.

Glenn faces the same problem. 

“Today’s ag workers need at least basic computer skills and can’t be intimidated by computers and learning more,” he said.

Today’s farm equipment has yield monitors, GPS guidance and programs that require education and experience to operate, Glenn explained.

“I’m operating a 90-foot sprayer with 54 nozzles,” Glenn said. “The computer knows if the area has already been sprayed, it will automatically turn off the nozzles. It’s hard to put somebody without the education in control of the machine. Most don’t have the skill set needed to work these sophisticated machines today.”

Spruell said he is always looking for planter operators, combine drivers and sprayers. He said he loses some workers to construction companies. They learn to drive bulldozers and loaders on his farm and take those skills elsewhere.

Mississippi State University is graduating qualified modern farmers, he said, and “those guys are starting out in the $40,000 range and they’re furnished with their own pickup truck.” 

Poultry under pressure

Competition is also intense for truck drivers, needed in the agriculture, automotive and other industries.

“Anytime the economy is good, truckers are in demand,” said Ray Hilburn, associate director of the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association. “Most of our jobs are at processing plants, feed mills, hatcheries and with catch crews. Sixty-seven percent of agriculture jobs in Alabama are in the poultry industry. If you take forestry out of the mix, poultry jobs are twice as many as any other commodity group. In Alabama, we grow over 1 billion chickens a year.”

Poultry processor Wayne Farms LLC has three of its 11 facilities in Decatur, employing more than 1,500 people here. Company spokesman Frank Singleton said the company is constantly battling turnover issues, and the tight job market has made things “more challenging.”

“The poultry industry has heavy turnover,” he said. “The low unemployment rate has really hit us and made it much tougher to hire and retain employees, but our production hasn’t been impacted. Decatur is a booming town today.”

He said some production jobs require manual labor with employees standing long hours on their feet.

The company’s website shows more than 30 job openings including production line, shipping, accounting and supervisor positions for the two prepared food processing plants and one fresh plant in Decatur.

“We are competitive with our pay and benefits,” Singleton said. “But everybody is losing workers because of the tight market.”

Officials with Alabama Poultry and Egg Association said about 86,000 people in Alabama are employed in the poultry industry and the number has been “pretty constant” despite a growing economy.

“We’re producing 21 million broiler chickens a week in the state,” spokesman Huck Carroll said, noting that is second in the nation behind Georgia’s 24 million. He said the industry is seeing an uptick in exports of dark meat to Europe, South America and India and sales of chicken wings continue to soar.

“People always have to eat,” Carroll said. “It used to be you couldn’t give chicken wings away. Now they’re the No. 1 portion sought. Thank goodness for the Super Bowl.”

He said while the state’s growing auto industry requires more job skills and the poultry industry is a little easier to get into, the industry still requires special skills.

Competing for workers

Even as they welcome the economic growth, most ag experts are wary of the impact Mazda Toyota will have on north Alabama farms.

“I’m tickled we have been attracting automotive industries here,” said Gerry Thompson, regional extension agent for animal sciences and forages for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. “But Alabama’s economy can’t hinge on car manufacturers. Limestone acreage is beginning to suffer from urban expansion.”

He said the Mazda Toyota plant is gobbling up nearly 3,000 acres of farmland.

He said all 67 counties have cattle farmers and noted the average cattle farm only has 25 heads. “It appears to be small in scale but, spread across the state, it has a huge impact,” he said.

Thompson said agriculture has a unique and powerful effect on local economies.

“Agriculture is a big economic driver,” he said. “Everything the growers buy for the farm, they buy locally. It has a multiplier effect. The farmer goes to the co-op to buy his feed, seed and fertilizer. That keeps money in the community and helps the overall local economy.

“Less than 2% of the workers make food in America so the other 98% don’t have to worry about hunting for their food. Because we have cheap and abundant food here, we can build cars, build rockets and get a good education to improve technology and design more efficient machines including those involved in agriculture.”

Locally, the Alabama Agribusiness Council reports Morgan County, the state’s second largest county in dairy cattle and milk production, has 18,841 farm-related jobs and contributes $2.8 billion to the area. Lawrence County, first in the state in corn production, lists 8,444 jobs with a $1.4 billion impact. Limestone County, first in the state in soybean production and fifth in cotton production, has 7,732 farm-related jobs with a $644.4 million impact.

The website of the Alabama Agribusiness Council in Montgomery said 1 out of every 4.6 jobs in the state is related to agriculture. It said more that 43,000 farms encompass about 8.9 million acres, with an average farm size of 206 acres.

Leigha Cauthen, executive director of Alabama Agribusiness Council, said she hopes the high-tech systems that play a larger part in farming today will entice younger workers into the field.

“The average age of a farmer in Alabama continues to increase, but technology advancements are making agriculture exciting for our young folks,” she said. “Agriculture has really embraced technology. You are really seeing an increased interest in those opportunities, and that is attracting younger people to agriculture, including many who may not have even been looking for a career in ag.”

Spruell needs workers with an interest in technology, but he notes a downside. “We have guys wanting to be clicking on their phone instead of working,” he said.

A part-time cattle farmer with his grandchildren, Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long knows the tight job market is hindering the farm industry but stays optimistic.

“A lot of the younger generation don’t want to stay focused and do the work,” said Long, who has 24 cows. “They might want to work a few hours and quit. With cows, chickens, cutting hay, field crops, you’ve got to be dedicated. It’s hard work. You can’t quit to watch the ball game. You’ve got to beat the weather. There’s a lot of obstacles you have to work around. ...

"It’s harder and harder to find quality people to do that kind of work. When the economy is good, people can be picky about what they do. They’re looking for the easy job. Farming has never been considered an easy job.”

mike.wetzel@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.

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