The Looming Labor Shortage in Agriculture

The following speech was written by Aaron Johnson, an Agribusiness professor at the University of Idaho. He gave the speech to our Leadership Idaho Agriculture class in Pocatello in December 2013. It is an excellent speech voicing his concerns over the lack of educated agricultural professionals, and the impact that will have on agriculture worldwide if something is not done to encourage more young people to enter this field.  Enjoy and share!

“I believe in the future of farming, with a faith born not of words but of deeds.” This line starts the FFA Creed as I memorized it as a first year member of my local FFA Chapter. The wording is different now but I can remember being on stage at districts, reciting the creed. That is when I realized how much I believed those words and decided to be involved in agriculture my whole life.

Fast forward a few years when I am heading into college. I can remember how others reacted when I informed them I was majoring in agriculture. Many people could either not understand what I was setting off to do or they would have a negative comment of sorts, deriding my decision to enter the field of agriculture.

That same sentiment was captured nearly 25 years later by a Yahoo blogger: Useless – that is what was projected by Yahoo article by Terence Loose in 2012. In his post, he included agriculture, animal science and horticulture in his list of five useless college majors (

That is one opinion, but I believe the data shows something else. I think there is a different story to be told about agriculture and its need for educated farmers, ranchers and agribusiness professionals. The data shows that there is a current shortage of trained professionals in agriculture and the shortage will only get worse in the future. I also believe we need to be doing something about this issue before it becomes a full blown crisis.

Let’s take the labor shortage issue:

Purdue conducted a study funded by National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the USDA regarding employment opportunities. They found that between 2010 and 2015,  54,400 jobs will be created annually that require a BS in agricultural, food and renewable natural resources. The same study projects only 29,300 graduates in these areas. Employers are expected to fill the shortfall with biological sciences and business graduates. In economics 101 we all learned that when the demand is greater than supply, prices increase. The cost for educated labor will increase. By how much or how long it will take, I don’t know.

We are in already in 2014, well into the period covered by the Purdue study. Does the future look more optimistic with respect to agriculture winning the skilled labor war? The answer is no…and it is likely to get worse. The age of our population is weighted on the “experienced” side with Baby Boomers coming into retirement age. This group of professionals hold many senior and upper level management positions in agriculture. The next group of professionals is smaller and fewer “aggies” are staying in the field. This will leave us with a leadership void that will be filled by a smaller, younger workforce, which will leave us another void in the next stage below. This situation paints a picture with good opportunities for those of us in the agricultural labor force with good job security. It also paints a significant challenge for leadership in companies across the industry and all along the market channel.

What can we do about the agricultural labor shortage? The first thing companies need to do is get really good about recruitment and retention. Recruitment – there is a battle for labor, especially the talented ones. Companies need to get more active and creative to get the right people in the right seats. Companies may even need to get involved in raising the interest in agriculture careers of high school students. But that is only half of the equation – retention is just as critical. The days of filling the pipeline and hoping good employees stick is over. Ag companies will need to get people on board and set them up for success – to help them, train them, and mentor them.

The second thing I believe companies will need to do is restructure their organizations. Many firms have four or five layers on the organizational chart – but there won’t be enough people to fill those roles in the future.  I foresee that many will restructure to a flatter organization where employees are more empowered and self-governed. That is going to require a managerial paradigm shift, but it can be done.

The third critical effort in meeting this labor challenge is to develop more managerial training for the current labor force. The leaders of tomorrow, as well as the youth, will find themselves in positions that require more than what they are trained and experienced for. As companies, and as the industry as a whole, we need to help the next level of executives handle the challenges they will face. We also need to help the younger generation gain a lifetime of experience in a very short period of time.

In conclusion: it is a great time to be in agriculture, but we will be facing a leadership challenge like no other in the past two decades, maybe longer. We see this problem coming, and we can do something about it – we must! Agriculture must recruit and retain the brightest and best young workers available. Agriculture must reorganize and empower the workforce to inspire innovation and excellence, and finally, agriculture must retool its labor force through new and innovative educational opportunities.

We have to act now, for the sake of our future, we have to act now!

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2 Responses to The Looming Labor Shortage in Agriculture

  1. Pingback: Schnizzle » Agribusiness Profile – Collyn Larson

  2. Pingback: Agribusiness Profile – Collyn Larson | Kiss My Tractor

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