Labor shortage reaches family farms

Labor shortage reaches family farms

Image Credit: Matt Vodraska

Family farms in Wayne and Holmes counties have long struggled with rising input costs, unpredictable weather patterns and fluctuating market prices. In many cases the labor shortage could be the last straw, putting family farms in a precarious financial situation.

Not every farm is experiencing a labor shortage, but for those who do, it has a big impact on already thin margins — and on the quality of life for farmers. After all, crops don’t stop growing, and cattle don’t stop eating. This often means farmers are working long days, seven days a week.

Ramseyer Farms in Wooster is known for its agritourism, though in fact the farm is a fifth-generation, family-owned working farm that also grows soybeans and wheat.

“Usually, there are people between jobs or new to the area, and we’ll have people stopping in (looking for work), and this year there has been no one stopping by. We're already down to bare bones. It is hard to think about how to get by without people,” Ramseyer Farms owner Dennis Ramseyer said.

“It's a tough situation that we're all in, who are in business. Hopefully, we'll make it through one way or another. We just can't turn around and up our wages by $5-$6 per hour more. We don't have that sort of margins.”

Ramseyer’s situation is not unique. Four Winds Farm in Smithville, owned by Heidi Rennecker, has 130 registered Holsteins they need to milk each day.

“I've been experiencing a labor shortage for many years. I had some high school kids, but they have gone back to school,” Rennecker said. “Now I just do it myself, and it takes me longer. It takes me about 14 hours a day to get it done each day, and that's just the necessities.”

Matt Vodraska is a managing partner with Rittman Orchards & Farm Market and owner of Bent Ladder Cider & Wine.

“(Finding staff) is practically impossible this year. Both at the orchard and Bent Ladder, I've been trying to fill open positions for a year. We upped the base pay with no results,” Vodraska said. “We have seen a large uptick in the amount of ghosting — a very high percentage of people who respond to a job post, schedule an interview and are no-shows. I can do more, but there are just not that many hours in the day. I can't even tell you the last time I had a day off.”

The labor shortage is already impacting how Vodraska runs his business. He has reduced the number of farmers markets and wine-tasting events they attend, and they have converted more acres to U-pick.

A dairy farmer from Holmes County also shared her story and requested to remain anonymous.

“My husband is a fourth-generation dairy farmer. When we needed help 10 years ago, we ran an ad in the local newspaper and received 50 responses, (but) when we ran an ad last year, we had a few responses, mostly from the people we would never hire in the first place,” she said.

“I would love to have a good full-time job with benefits, but because I am over 50, someone younger always gets the job. It's ironic since I've worked 15 hours a day seven days a week at an extremely physically demanding job on the farm. I don't think anyone younger could do it for very long. It's hard, dirty work.

“Robotic milkers would be a dream come true, but they are extremely expensive, and we can't take on any more debt at this time, especially with plummeting milk prices and an uncertain future for the dairy industry.”

Another anonymous farmer from Holmes County said he currently has enough help, but the quality is the issue. Both of these anonymous farmers emphasized finding qualified individuals with the right skill set was a major challenge.

Is agritourism the solution?

Ramseyer Farms agritourism branch fills a different seasonal niche than some of the other farms in the region: they are only open to the public for the months of September and October each year. That niche has served them well, and they are not currently experiencing a labor shortage.

Jenna Mast is the operations manager for agritourism at Ramseyer. “As far as the agritourism goes, we are trying to schedule at least 130 seasonal team members, and we're already at about 70% there, and that's normal for us at this time of year," she said.

“I think the main reason that we have had fewer hiring challenges is that we are seasonal — only two months. And we have flexible hours — some weekends, some weekdays. Most other jobs are more concrete with hours and days. One advantage is that we have a high return rate, and we are blessed that we have many who return every fall."

Longer-term trends

Ty Higgins, senior director of communications with the Ohio Farm Bureau, said it has always been tough getting workers in agriculture, so the Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation conducted an agribusiness labor study in 2020.

“We're seeing more automation — robots that milk cows, tractors that drive themselves. But even with the changing landscape and increased mechanization that is already happening, 90,000 jobs will still be needed in (Ohio farms) in the next 10 years. These jobs could be in anything from sales and marketing to maintenance and repair,” Higgins said.

“There is such a need for labor in agriculture, and if we can't fill those positions, those help wanted signs could turn into for sale signs. We’re at a point here if we can't find people who can fill the jobs, we’re at risk of losing a lot of farms.”