A Change In Job, But Not A Change In Mission

Alyssa Couse

Since my last article, quite a bit has changed, both personally and within the agriculture industry. 

    First, I’d like to reintroduce myself as the new director of member services and industry relations for the Northeast Dairy Producers Association. The NEDPA Mission Statement reads: 

    “The Northeast Dairy Producers Association is an organization of dairy producers and industry partners committed to an economically viable, consumer-conscious dairy industry dedicated to the care and well-being of our communities, our environment, our employees and our cows.” 

    This not-for- profit organization serves its members by providing them with timely updates within the dairy industry, working on current issues, and supporting them and the good work they do for their land, animals, families, and their communities. One key issue that has been a focus recently is agricultural labor. The passing of the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices act in mid-July, which is due to take effect in January 2020, could affect some farms significantly looking forward, but the uncertainty of what the future farm workforce will look like is greater now than ever. 

    While putting together a newsletter a couple weeks ago, I read an article that has been thought-provoking ever since. The article was titled “A vision of the future dairy workforce” by Richard Stup, of Cornell University’s Ag Workforce Development team. It addressed the current stigma surrounding farm work: low skill, low-wage jobs in a high-skill, high-wage economy. This has made recruiting, hiring and retaining quality workers a tremendous challenge. The dairy industry specifically seems to be at a turning point when it comes to the future of farm labor.  

    “The future of the dairy industry in the U.S. depends on reducing or eliminating low-skill jobs and replacing them with technology and high-skill jobs. This process is well underway, with the adoption of self-guided farm machinery, group calf feeders, robotic feed pushers and automatic milking systems.” said Ricard Stup, Ag Workforce Development . 

    As technology develops and farming becomes more technical and precise, the skills needed to be successful in the industry will also evolve. Cattle genetics continue to improve and with research and development, people are better able to understand which management strategies make cows the most comfortable, most productive, and most free to do what they do best, be cows. 

    According to Dr. Stup, the future dairy farm employee will need an enhanced set of skills such as heightened critical thinking and problem solving, systems analysis, and will need to not only be compassionate and nurturing, but also well educated and data savvy. These are the skills that make for a successful middle to upper manager on farm today, but these skills will need to be characteristics of employees of all levels. 

    The agriculture industry cannot simply wait around for the next generation of ideal farm workers to emerge; the need is now. It is no secret that it is incredibly difficult for farms to attract and rely on a local labor force, especially in times of extremely low unemployment rates. Thus, the industry has had to turn to a workforce of immigrants and people of diverse backgrounds. This process is often complicated with differences in lifestyle, language barriers, and navigating through paperwork and regulations. However, most foreign workers come with an invaluable work ethic. As their birth rates decline and more opportunities arise in their home countries, U.S. agriculture is in growing need of a larger demographic of future employees. 

    So where will the rest of the future ag workforce come from? They will most likely be new to the farming lifestyle and not born into the family business like in generations of the past. Many students are studying animal science and related studies simply because they love animals and want a career with them. Like our farm managers today, future employees will need to be versatile and embrace the balance between manual labor as well as office work, such as navigating cattle health software. Some will enter the industry to fulfill their calling to feed others and desire to do an essential work. The future of farm labor will no doubt be diverse. As the industry evolves and becomes more technical, more high-skill, there’s hope that farm labor will become a sought after, fulfilling career.