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Farmers Hike Benefits to Attract Workers

Associated Press

Joe Wedge only makes $4 an hour, but the benefits are good. He gets a house, free heat, electricity, beef and all the milk his family can drink.

His employers say it’s the least they can do to make sure he stays on the job.

Wedge is a farm laborer.

That makes him hot property in a part of the country where a booming economy and low unemployment have forced up wages and created a severe labor shortage for the dairy farmer. Some experts say the labor crunch ranks second only to development pressures in pushing Northeast farmers out of business.

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Those farmers who are staying in business are cutting back operations, simplifying chores, turning to employment agencies or increasing worker benefits, such as housing, health insurance, pension funds, paid vacations, holidays, livestock and even pizza.

“One of the most important things is creating an environment where people really have fun in the workplace,” says Gary Maas, who advises farmers on labor problems and runs an agricultural headhunting service from his home in Massena, Iowa.

Farm experts say the labor problem has become acute in the last few years because of a dwindling pool of workers in the 16 to 24 age group and the bustling Northeast economy. This fall, Vermont’s unemployment rate dropped to 1.9%, setting a nationwide low.

Apple orchardists overcome the problem by hiring migrant laborers. But dairy farms are year-round businesses, and it is hard to keep workers when the competition is a construction firm or a Burger King.

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Maas, who was in New England recently conducting seminars on farm labor management, took note of competing fast-food wages. “I think in Manchester (N.H.) I saw they were paying $6.79 an hour,” he said.

Wedge works for Tom and Mike Audet, brothers who have worked more than 15 years on their 250-head dairy farm 2 miles from the New York state line.

“The first eight years, we tried to do it by ourselves with a high school kid,” Tom says in the barn’s maternity ward, where a pregnant Holstein is about to calve.

But the pool of high school students dwindled and the farm expanded to 1,000 acres, 250 cows and 3,300 maple sugar taps. Over the next six years, the Audets hired and lost 11 full-time workers.

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They added a house this year after their 11th worker showed up one day in damp clothing. His tent had blown down in an ice storm.

Wedge, a thin man with glasses, red hair and a beard, says the house was a major reason he came to work on the Audets’ farm 3 1/2 months ago. He had been working in construction.

“I get to play with the tractors,” the 28-year-old Wedge says with a smile. “I like machinery and cows. We get a house provided, lights, heat, all the milk you can drink. They give so much beef a year. The hours are shorter than any other farm I’ve worked on.”

But, although the Audets are ahead in the benefits game, many farmers have a ways to go to learn it, says Tom Maloney, an agricultural extension associate at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He recently conducted a survey of 122 New York dairy farms and found that most employers were not keeping pace with health, retirement and other benefits, such as sick days and paid holidays.

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“We found out of 88 employees, for example, that on average they received two paid vacation days per year, and the average workweek was 60 hours,” Maloney says.

The Audets and others point out that extra benefits will only help if farmers can still find workers.

“Part of it is the image of agricultural jobs, which is long hours, hard work and low pay, and I don’t think we’ve done nearly enough in emphasizing some of the positive aspects of farm work,” Maloney says.

Wedge drives a tractor down the Audets’ road as the brothers stand on a hillside, gazing at the land between their home and Lake Champlain. Acres of golden hayfields lie beneath the slate-blue sky, separated only by stands of trees, an occasional fence, or a barn and silos.

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Tom points to one of four farms the eye can see. It’s up for development, and the one just beyond it has already been sold and split into 10-acre strips.


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