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Labor Problems & Solutions—How Some Growers Solved their Labor Puzzle

Troy Swift, owner of Swift River Pecans, started his lumber business as a way to keep employees year-round. This is some of the lumber that's been put through the sawmill. (Photo by Cindy Wise)

It goes like this. Troy Swift has 45 acres of productive pecan trees. He needs workers for harvest. He hires someone. This person shows up the first day, but maybe they don’t show up the next. Or they have personal or family problems that start to affect their work. Or maybe they are lazy and don’t want to work but still want the pay.

No matter the reason, the outcome is the same. The business suffers, and growers like Swift have to begin the search for reliable and honest employees yet again.

Troy Swift, owner of Swift River Pecans, is like many growers across the Pecan Belt, who have had trouble meeting their labor needs.

He entered the pecan business in 1998 when he bought an orchard with natives and improved varieties along the San Marcos River in Texas. Since then, he has expanded his business to cover all things pecan from planting trees to sawing them up.

As Swift can attest, running a pecan business requires a grand effort. From the stickers to equipment hands to the farm manager to the owner, each role provides essential support in each level of an orchard operation. But with alternative bearing, market ups and downs, and the shift of seasons, finding and keeping good help becomes yet another puzzle that growers must solve in order to stay in business.

Diverse Labor Needs:

“The very first labor challenge is caused by alternate bearing,” Swift says. “I don’t even call it alternate bearing anymore. I call it erratic bearing.”

According to Swift, true alternate bearing would mean you could make plans and that your orchard business would be every other year or cyclic. Instead, especially in the native pecan business, Swift says one year could bring a huge crop and the next year or two or three bring you nothing.

Another problem that growers face when searching and keeping employees is the different types of skill level needed to manage a pecan business. Three different types that many growers rely on are unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled labor. Each type of employee handles an essential task that others rely on.

“You hire stickers and they don’t show up. Then, you have to take your harvester or shaker— a higher dollar person—and they have to get off the machine and pick up sticks,” Swift clarifies. “Now, you’re not running your capital equipment, and it doubles the hang-up.”

But what happens when you finally find that elusive reliable employee?

Well, oftentimes the seasons strike again. Harvest ends, and you don’t have work for these employees anymore. Off they go, restarting their job search.

After all the time, energy and effort you put in to hiring and training these people, they disappear and you lose a good employee for next year. Swift believes there’s a way to fix that issue.

“How I see it, employers need reliable employees, and employees need a reliable job with fair pay,” Swift says. “With alternate or erratic bearing, that’s not possible because you can’t hold them for nine months out of the year, you can’t afford to. Unless…you do something else.”

With that in mind, Swift took countermeasures. Over the course of 20 years, he expanded his orchard to grow improved varieties, expanded his care of natives and offered services to care for others’ natives, opened a retail shop, and lastly, started a lumber business. Each decision along the way helped Swift keep more and more of his skilled and semi-skilled employees. Many of these decisions centered on this thought: “expand [my] business to a less erratic business.”

And his lumber business, opened in 2011, is one example of this thought process.

“One of the real reasons I did [my lumber business] and an argument to do it was to keep my core labor so that when October rolls around, we could switch to pecan harvesting,” he says.

Before starting his lumber business, Swift examined what existing capital assets he already had—tractor, trailer, chainsaws, mowers—and he analyzed the needs of other growers. He knew that downed and damaged trees and limbs would need to be cleared before harvest time; he knew that the lumber business was not erratic. And most luckily, he took advantage of the fact that the local sawmill had just burned down.

“It’s not as easy as just doing that; you have to put out more capital,” Swift explains. “Those logs have to be moved anyway to get out of the way for harvesting so it just seemed like a good complementary thing to do.”

For other growers, sometimes finding good employees just comes down to luck.

Jeb Barrow, owner of Three Bees Farms in Matthews, Georgia, says he has not had a difficult time getting labor, partly because of where he lives.

“In this area, any kind of steady job is in demand,” Barrow says.

Almost all of Barrow’s employees have worked for him at least 10 years. His farm has been in his family since 1896. Barrow has been actively involved in management since the 1970s and farms about 1,000 acres of improved variety pecans. In that time, Barrow has honed his employment policies.

“Unlike any other farmer I know, we pay overtime. So, my guys want to work 80 to 90 hours a week if they can get it,” he explains. “I’ve always tried to be generous with bonuses at the end of the year [too].”

For this reason, Barrow has a very stable labor force and has very little trouble in retaining employees. He also emphasizes a grower’s need to be understanding of their employees.

With this in mind, he works hard to support his employees in a variety of different ways. He provides rent-free houses for two employees simply because he had the two houses and they wanted to live in them. He offers an $11 pay scale for tractor drivers.

“I think we treat them better than most people do. For instance, I’ve had a long-standing policy with my employees that if you have a child that likes school and does well in school, you encourage ‘em. If he wants to go to college, we’ll make it happen,” Barrow shares.

Barrow knows though that not every grower can afford to offer similar benefits. For those wondering why their workforce is leaving, he suggests growers analyze their policies.

“If you’re having problems keeping labor, you’ve got to ask yourself ‘Why?’” Barrow says. “Are these people leaving going to better jobs? Do they just hate their boss’s guts and are leaving for the spirit of it? Are there any problems that you can address?”

He further suggests that growers analyze their community and what’s going on around them.

“If you’ve got jobs in the community that pay 20 bucks an hour, and you can’t pay $10 then you’re just up against it. The only thing you can do is analyze what’s happening and try to address the problems that you can and live with those you can’t,” he adds.

Swift ’s own employment philosophy falls along the same line as Barrow’s: treat your employees well. Like Barrow, he offers benefits, such as insurance, worker’s comp, and flex time. He has recently been off ering to pay for online training for certain employees. But above all, Swift emphasizes safety.

“Safety is really first. Nobody wants to get hurt. No employer wants an employee to get hurt,” Swift says. “If you can provide [your employees] a safe place to work, they really appreciate that.”

Safety, good pay, insurance and other benefits can all go a long way to establishing and maintaining good employees. Swift adds that teaching your employees the basics of the business and letting them know that their work matters, too, will further cultivate a symbiotic employee-employer relationship.

H-2A Visa Program:

In another effort to solve some of these labor issues, some growers have turned to the H-2A program. The H-2A program allows United States employers, upon meeting specific requirements, to bring foreign workers into the U.S. to fill temporary agricultural jobs. The program falls under the U.S. Department of Labor but also relies on three other federal departments—the  Department of Homeland Security, Department of Agriculture, and Department of State. Each department has its own requirements within the program which it manages and regulates.

But this program comes with its own challenges, which further exacerbate the labor issues growers face. For years, growers across agriculture have complained that the program is expensive and burdensome. With too many requirements and too much bureaucratic red tape, many have decided to look elsewhere when it comes to finding help.

Gary Lehmann, orchard manager of Pecan Grove Plantation in Bastrop, Texas, has used the H-2A program for a number of years. Even with this program, he has struggled to find and keep reliable employees.

“We don’t have any help,” he says. “It has been off and on for years, but the last seven to eight years it has been really difficult.”

Growers are not the only ones who recognize H-2A’s shortcomings. Robert Redding, hired lobbyist for the National Pecan Federation and President of The Redding Firm, says that the program is working but not working well.

“It’s onerous. It’s expensive. It’s complicated. Most of these guys employ consultants, or for the larger ones, they’ve hired full-time people to focus on it,” Redding says. “I know a couple of growers that have gone in with orchards, and their kids have gone off to law school and come back into the business, now spending much of their daily time running these programs. But less than 1 percent of growers have that option of an in-house consultant on labor.”

Out in Georgia, the second state with the most H-2A workers, Jeb Barrow of Three Bees Farms has never used the H-2A program for the reasons Redding listed above.

“It’s very complex,” Barrow explains. “I’d love to get my Mexican workers onto the program. We already offer workers’ comp insurance, but one of the complexities is that you have to provide housing for them.”

Until the program changes to address these complexities, Barrow doesn’t see himself using it.

“I’d love to see the government be more liberal in allowing non-Americans to come into this country and to get legal work documents and green papers and to be able to track it so [the workers] don’t end up staying,” Barrow says. “Just loosen up that whole system so you don’t have to break the law to get the employees you need.”

In Texas, Lehmann suggested a similar solution.

“Simplify that guest worker program,” he says. “In other words, say I need 20 people for harvest. You go through immigration or wherever they set up and you get to interview these people. Then, give these workers an ID like a driver’s license with E-Verify.”

At the end of the day, growers like Lehmann just want something to be done.

A spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Labor says officials are currently partnering with the USDA, DHS and Department of State “to streamline, simplify, and improve the H-2A temporary agricultural visa program for farmers.”

As for major changes to the H-2A temporary agricultural visa, pecan lobbyist Robert Redding says growers should not expect legislative changes this year, but he thinks there is hope in the regulatory path toward H-2A reform.

“Maybe early next year or next quarter or even this year, we should see those [changes] come out as regulation or proposed regulation,” Redding says.

For now, Redding advises Growers Associations to step up and to start “educating members about how these programs work and giving them consultants to contact.”

Finding good employees may require some sleuthing on your own part—asking around, talking with current employees, or applying for the H-2A visa program— but keeping reliable and honest employees has a seemingly obvious solution.

“Don’t hire desperate people. Desperate people do desperate things. And the ones you do hire pay them fairly and treat them with respect,” Swift says. “Once you get to know them, then you can get into other stuff.”

Author Photo

Catherine Clark

Catherine Clark is the managing editor of Pecan South. She has her M.S. in Journalism from the University of Southern California, and her B.A. in Communication and Spanish from Trinity University. For questions, comments or concerns, she can be reached at