GPN’s Labor Survey Report By Debbie Eisele

Ornamental growers reveal industry challenges

In an effort to gauge the labor landscape, Greenhouse Product News recently conducted a labor survey among growers, which unveiled critical insights into the prevailing challenges faced by this sector. 

The survey, conducted in April 2024, drew responses from across the U.S. and from a diverse range of growers, including traditional ornamental plants such as annuals, perennials, trees, shrubs, herbs and leafy greens — and a notable percentage also reported cultivating nontraditional crops like cannabis and cacti, succulents and xeric plants. 

The survey revealed that approximately 55% of respondents said that they did have enough labor in 2023, and about 45% of respondents said that they did not have adequate labor last year. For those experiencing shortages, 35% said less than 10% of their crops went unharvested, 28% noted 20% to 29% went unharvested, and 12% said that they had greater than 30% unharvested, highlighting the impact of labor scarcity on production efficiency and economic viability. 

H-2A 

In addressing labor shortages, 33% of participants reported using the H-2A program, indicating a reliance on foreign guest workers to supplement domestic labor. However, the complexities of the H-2A program, including legal processes and wage requirements, have posed significant challenges for growers. 

Responses varied and some expressed concerns over increased costs and wage spikes, while others highlighted the bureaucratic hurdles involved in the application process. 

Additionally, a considerable percentage (42%) of respondents expressed a willingness to outsource the H-2A recruiting and management process entirely, reflecting a growing trend towards seeking external assistance to navigate the intricacies of labor procurement.

AUTOMATION AND LABOR MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES 

To mitigate labor shortages, the survey identified 41% of respondents will turn to automation as a predominant strategy, with many planning to automate various aspects of operations. 

Pruning emerged as a primary focus for automation, which underscores the industry’s shift towards mechanized solutions to streamline production processes and reduce reliance on manual labor. 

CHALLENGES AND REFLECTIONS 

In addition to quantitative data, the survey captured qualitative insights from respondents, which highlighted the multifaceted nature of labor challenges in the industry. 

“Customers are reluctant to pay the price increases needed to sustain the year after year labor increases,” said one survey participant. 

Concerns ranged from legislative barriers and recruitment difficulties to generational attitudes towards agricultural work. 

“Finding labor that wants to work in ag is more challenging than just finding people,” noted another respondent. 

These reflections underscored the need for holistic approaches that address not only immediate labor shortages but longer term labor issues affecting the industry.