Employee shortages that plague other industries have also hit the ag sector, and grain merchandisers like Ag Valley Coop have not been exempt.
Automation is helping somewhat.
The company has implemented a card reader system at scale houses in three Ag Valley locations, North Platte, Bartley and Edison, to reduce the labor involved in taking in grain.
Upon entering an inbound or outbound scale, each grain truck driver scans their card without leaving the cab. The system records full and empty scale readings. It then couples the net weight with information about the partners and splits associated with the field being harvested.
Not only does automation free up some of the time taken to operate the scale house, it also reduces chances of human errors that would take time to correct later on, according to Brian Groskreutz, grain division manager at the company’s head office in Edison.
One reason for the current labor shortage at Ag Valley is that “we were not approved for the H-2A program this year” Groskreutz said.
The H-2A program allows agricultural employers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. for temporary or seasonal work if they anticipate a shortage of domestic labor, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s website.
They normally rely on the immigrant visa program to tap into a labor pool from as far away as South Africa.
“The work visas (typically) start in February. (Employees) work in agronomy in the spring and summer and at the elevator in the fall. (This year) we don’t have those employees,” Groskreutz said. At the same time, with the currently low unemployment rate in Nebraska, “it’s hard to find people to work.”
To keep things running as smoothly as possible through harvest, Groskreutz recommends that customers contact the co-op ahead of time, so all the information can be entered into the grain accounting system. After that, if there are any needed adjustments, “let us know before coming in and we can make those changes, and that will speed things up” at the elevator.
However, automation will only go so far in meeting the labor shortage.
“Employees are going to have to work longer” this harvest, Groskreutz said, but the company will adjust, and “I don’t think the lines (at the elevator) will be longer (than usual).”
As for long-term needs, it’s going to continue to be a challenge, Groskreutz said, even if they can use the H-2A visa program next year.
“We had an opening for a grain originator (this summer) and we only had one applicant.”