Farm employment up, but pay rates fall

2010-02-28T10:30:00Z Farm employment up, but pay rates fallBy Matthew Wilde, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Sioux City Journal

READLYN - Farmers in Iowa and Missouri are hiring more workers but paying them less.

A farm labor survey released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture says on-farm employment in the two states - called the Corn Belt II region by the USDA - reached 23,000 in January, up 3,000 compared to a year earlier. The figure bucked the national trend.

There were 767,000 workers - 180,000 were agricultural service employees - working on the nation's farms and ranches during the week of Jan. 10-16.

That's down 2 percent compared to the same time period a year earlier.

Producers and employment experts credit agriculture with keeping people employed in the Midwest. When the national unemployment rate reached 10 percent in December, Iowa was at 6.2 percent.

Livestock is a contributing factor, said Peter Orazem, Iowa State University labor economist. Iowa ranks first in hog and egg production, seventh in beef and 13th in milk, and all are labor-intensive endeavors.

"There's a difference in agriculture at the local and national level. There are larger farms (producing) eggs, hogs and poultry," Orazem said. "We're not necessarily talking highly-skilled employees ... (but) day-to-day animal care."

Dairy farmer Ron Strottman manages a 200-head herd near Readlyn. He employs four full-time workers - one is his son - to help milk, feed animals and do other chores.

"Farms are good for the local economy," Strottman said. "Most farms (with livestock) have employees."

While it may be easier to get a job on a farm locally compared to the rest of the country, the pay will probably be less.

According to government statistics, the average wage of a farm worker in the Corn Belt II region was $10.98 per hour last month, compared to $11.40 a year earlier. Nationally, farm pay increased 13 cents per hour during the past year to $11.06 per hour in January.

Orazem said the worst economic recession since the Great Depression most likely put downward pressure on farm wages. Even though unemployment in Iowa is lower than the rest of the country, it's still higher than 2008 when it was mainly in the 3 to 4 percent range. More workers available means less money is needed to attract them, Orazem said.

Even though beef, hog and milk producers sustained unprecedented losses last year, Northeast Iowa livestock farmers say they need to do better than average when it comes to pay and benefits to attract and keep workers.

Many potential employees are several generations removed from production agriculture and don't care for the early or long hours, physical labor and other things that accompany working on a farm. Plus, area farmers say they compete with companies like meat packers and contractors where people can usually find work.

"Finding good help isn't easy. Nobody wants to get up at 3 a.m. to milk, and it's seven days a week," Strottman said.

To compete, Strottman said, he offers good wages, a flexible work schedule and housing or a gas allowance.

Kyle Dudden says he looks for help to run hog farms near Reinbeck and Dike once, maybe twice, a year. Want ads will generate a range of resumes, he said.

Dudden said pay depends on experience, but it is competitive.

"In order to get quality employees, you have to be," Dudden said. He declined to say how many people he employs.

Another hog farmer who wished to remain anonymous said he "had a terrible time trying to hire employees" recently.

Employees who work in fields and with livestock average $11 per hour in the region, according to the survey. Those strictly working on grain farms average $11.40 per hour, but they tend to be more seasonal. Livestock-only workers average $10.77 per hour.

Farm employees averaged 33.5 hours a week last month, according to the labor survey. A year ago, 34 hours was the norm. Nationally, workers average 37.3 hours per week on farms.

As for the future, ISU Extension farm economist Mike Duffy said there are signs of hope this year for grain and livestock producers - lower input costs and higher prices. But they aren't ready to go on a hiring frenzy yet.

"The general feeling is a wait-and-see attitude," he said.

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