AMERICAN FALLS, Idaho — Most springs, about 30 people stop by Koompin Farms to add their names to a waiting list for work.
This season, however, the Koompins — who would pass along extra names from the list to other area farmers — had just a third of the usual interest. Furthermore, most of the applicants sought full-time employment, while the Koompins were looking to make seasonal hires.
The tight labor supply is a familiar story on farms throughout Idaho, the leading state in job growth for six consecutive months.
Tax data and employer surveys show state wages have begun to creep up, said Bob Uhlenkott, a research officer with the Idaho Department of Labor. The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate held steady at 3.6 percent during February — within the range considered full employment by IDL. Gains in manufacturing and construction led job growth, as 2,100 workers joined the state’s labor force in February.
“Lower skilled jobs are going to be the jobs under the most pressure when you have any kind of workforce shortage,” Uhlenkott said, adding the workforce crunch could inhibit additional economic growth.
In his 2016 studies on Idaho agricultural production costs, University of Idaho Extension economist Ben Eborn estimated farm labor costs rose by 3.5 percent.
“In 2017, I’m sure they’re going to go up by at least 3 percent, and maybe more because of the shortage,” Eborn said. “Most producers right now have pretty tight margins as it is.”
To remain competitive, Kamren Koompin, whose workers recently began cutting seed potatoes, said his family offered returning staff members a 5 percent raise. They boosted wages for first-time hires by 10 percent. Koompin has also noticed more advertisements for labor from farmers fulfilling a requirement to check locally before hiring foreign temporary workers through the H-2A visa program.
Bill Lasley, a Power County Commissioner who works as human resources director with Driscoll Brothers Partnership, said H-2A workers have been part of the solution for his employer, and represent an increasingly popular option within the community. At their fresh potato shed, the Driscolls are also installing a robotic system to package potatoes in pallets, which should eliminate the need for about 15 employees.
Michael Williamson, who raises fruit and wine grapes in Caldwell, sought to hire a dozen workers earlier this year, but had to settle for half that many.
“We couldn’t hire them,” Williamson said. “They were wanting more money than we were willing to pay.”
Williamson expects to hire his first H-2A workers this season and plans to partner with another grower to share laborers.