No this is not a help wanted ad; but, now that I have your attention, let me tell you about a man who says he will pay you $100 an hour to drive a tractor. Greg Duerksen is president of Kincannon & Reed, one of the world’s leading agricultural search firms. They have recruited top executives for some of the largest agricultural companies in the world. Increasingly, they are not on the lookout for three piece suits who know their way around a boardroom but for skilled farm workers who know their way around large, sophisticated tractors, combines, and sprayers. Duerksen recently stunned a room full of ag journalists, many of whom grew up driving tractors on their family farms for nothing, when he said he was placing skilled farm laborers on farms around the world for $100 an hour. He went on to describe a new kind of migrant farm labor that is in increasing demand by a highly mechanized and specialized agricultural production system.
Duerksen told the Ag Issues Forum, sponsored by Bayer, that he is currently seeking experienced farm managers with a starting salary of $300,000 a year. He pointed out, as commodity farming operations both here in the US and around the world get larger and more capital intensive, they require people with a very specialized set of skills. While today in the US most farms are owned and operated by families, the future may dictate a different structure as farming operations get larger farm operators may be looking for hired help that can do more than run to town for parts. Already we have farmers in the Midwest who farm operations in the Corn Belt and, during the winter, operate farming operations in South America. Already large wheat farms in the Ukraine and rice farms in Thailand are searching the world, with the help of Mr. Duerksen, for skilled farm managers. Once US farmers looked to Mexico for its labor, now they will have to compete for skilled farm labor on a global scale — and pay a premium price to get it.
Migrant farm labor has for decades been unskilled manual labor which harvested the crops, picked the fruits and vegetables, and cared for livestock. With increased mechanization and sophistication, the farms of today and tomorrow will require less manual labor. However, what they will require are people who can operate and repair highly technical and expensive equipment. Duerksen described the migrant worker of the future who will travel the world operating specialized equipment on farms on different continents. Like the migrants of the past, this new breed will follow the harvest around the world but will command a salary farm laborers today could never imagine.
These individuals will be highly trained and educated, and will spend time working in a variety of industries. This is another reality agriculture will have to face. Farmers will be competing with coal mines, construction companies, and oil rigs for labor with the skills to operate sophisticated equipment in challenging environmental conditions. This means labor costs will be significantly higher than they are today.
For those of you who are clinging tightly to your Normal Rockwell prints, this glimpse of the future must seem rather scary with its 10,000 acre commodity farms run by robots and world traveling managers and equipment operators. But, keep in mind, that this is what the market will require of bulk commodity operations. The future will also provide fabulous opportunities for specialized farming operations that will work on a smaller scare where quality and customization will rule. Here, too, however, the labor needs will be different than they are today. Our vocational educational and land grant institutions need to be providing the labor force of the future with the skill sets needed to work in a much different farm world.
By Gary Truitt