Agriculture’s ‘youth movement’

From left, Sterling Colley, Anthony Buck and Easton Thompson wait at Norris Blueberry Farms with electric pallet jacks to load a semi-truck trailer with blueberries. The farm has been hiring local young people to work in the packing barn for the last 20 years.

Finding enough workers for the busy season is a challenge for many farms, which try everything from recruiting local workers to hiring H-2A visa workers from overseas.

A blueberry farm near Roseburg, Ore., reminds us of the not-so-distant past, when farmers relied more on teenagers during the busiest times of the year. Paul and Sandy Norris, owners of Norris Blueberry Farms, hire 180 high school and college students each summer to work in the fields and the packing and shipping facility. They’ve relied on their home-grown “youth movement” for 20 years, and see it as a win-win for them for their employees.

“The youth who work here are absolutely amazing and resourceful,” Paul Norris told writer Craig Reed. “They stay with the job until it is done. They learn responsibility. We have orders and we have to get them out. They have to stay with the job until it is done. The young adults know that and they respond very well.”

They pay the students based on their hard word. They start at minimum wage, but can receive more — retroactively — based on how hard they work and their attitude. The young workers quickly come to understand how capitalism operates — hard work and a good attitude are handsomely rewarded.

It is a lesson many adults these days would also do well to learn.

The Norrises chose to rely on student workers when they started their farm two decades ago. Their first recruits were their three daughters — Amy, Carrie and Ellie — and their friends and acquaintances. From there they built a tradition of hiring local students.

As a result, the Norrises have a ready-made corps of reliable workers that return year after year. They hire itinerant crews for the picking, but all of the weighing, sorting, packing and shipping are done by their youth crews.

The low unemployment rate — 3.9 percent nationally — has put added pressure on many agricultural employers. Workers who previously did farm work are being drawn to construction and other year-round jobs, leaving many farms struggling to find enough workers.

With the unemployment rate for teenagers at 8.4 percent, farmers such as the Norrises have tapped into a ready labor market.

But there’s more to the job for the students than a healthy paycheck. There’s the life lesson that hard word impresses on young people.

“You learn how to work hard here, you get an idea of what it takes to work in any company,” said Kristen Beebe, 22, who is in her fifth year at the farm and leads a crew of 15 youth in moving pallets. “You have to get along with people, to be able to talk with both superiors and people below you in efficient ways.”

To their credit, other farms and packing houses also hire young workers. Grass seed growers and other farmers hire students to drive swathers and combines to harvest their crops — and have for decades.

They know what the Norrises know. Treated and trained well, young workers will do a great job, spread the word to their friends and keep the ranks filled year after year.

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