By Emma Castleberry
In 2015, Organic Growers School (OGS) conducted a survey of more than 150 local farmers. In the survey, titled Barriers to Farming in Western North Carolina, 60 percent of farmers reported that finding farm labor was a significant barrier to their success. “It continues to be an issue that all farmers in WNC struggle with,” says Nicole DelCogliano, farmer programs coordinator at OGS. “Farmers who farm full- or part-time can’t offer consistent employment due to the nature of when crops are ready to be harvested. Therefore, finding reliable farm workers who can be flexible is hard.”
In response to this trend, OGS is hosting a workshop called Managing Farm Labor: How to Structure Labor on the Small Farm. The workshop will be held Monday, December 4, from 4–8:30 p.m. at the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy Incubator Farm. Three presenters will cover topics including labor structure, management practices, equity issues in farm labor and legal considerations. “Farmer to farmer teaching is often the best way for farmers to learn,” says DelCogliano. “We chose our presenters because they are committed to teaching the next generation of farmers and have undertaken extensive education on farming.”
One such presenter is Lorien E. MacAuley, a doctoral candidate in the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition Program at Virginia Tech. “In the US, there is no sure-fire way to find farm labor, even for large farms,” MacAuley says. “This leads many farmers to conclude that they can’t grow their farm business past a certain point.” MacAuley adds that farmers face the unique challenge of managing individuals who are less knowledgeable about farm work. “It is a myth that farm work is unskilled labor,” she says. “The typical worker on a small, diversified farm has to make countless, complicated decisions throughout the day.”
Another presenter, Danielle Hutchinson, owner of Beacon Village Farm, says that mounting regional development is pressuring farmers to do more with less land, which directly affects the labor force. As a wholesale business, Beacon Village Farm has reduced its labor struggle by being more selective about the crops planted. “Often, farmers try too hard to do it all,” Hutchison says. “This is not the most effective way to maximize labor. Slimming down, focusing on key elements and growing profitable crops help to reduce labor issues.”
All issues that face local farms are ultimately community issues. “Every conscious consumer of farm products has a stake in our game,” says Hutchison. “When consumers know the reason for higher prices for organic, local, quality produce, they can vote with their wallets at the farmers market and grocery store.”
The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy Incubator Farm is located at 180 Mag Sluder Road in Alexander. Admission to the workshop is $40 per person and includes dinner. For more information, contact Sera at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit organicgrowersschool.org.