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The agricultural growing season is underway, and New Jersey’s hiring crisis could lead to higher prices for produce because farmers are having to raise wages for students and other part-time workers to combat a labor shortage caused by misguided government policies for unemployment benefits.

Kurt Alstede, owner of the 800-acre Alstede Farms in Morris County, delivered that news at the New Jersey Business Coalition’s recent virtual town hall on New Jersey’s hiring crisis.

“I’ve seen tight labor markets. I’ve never seen a market as tight as this one,” said Alstede, who is also a member of the board of directors of Farm Credit East, an agricultural credit association that provides more than 80% of the agricultural financing in New Jersey, New York and New England.

“The season is just getting underway and we’re already hearing many reports of producers having very difficult times attracting and maintaining employees,” Alstede said. “This is especially true for some of our larger wholesale producers in both the northern and southern parts of New Jersey.”

Alstede said people don’t want to work because the federal government is funding $300 unemployment bonus payments on top of the extended benefits that are also provided.

“It appears that the unemployment insurance has taken away the incentives for work in an environment when there is an even greater demand as the economy is opening up again for employees,” Alstede said. “There’s a shrinking workforce with more job opportunities available than ever.”

The labor shortage puts pressure on farmers to raise wages to attract the workers they need, and that has a ripple effect on the prices consumers will pay for fruit and vegetables, Alstede said.

“We are offering higher wages for starting high school students, and that’s pushed up all the wages,” Alstede said. “That’s true of all of our colleagues throughout the state. Everybody’s paying higher wages and they’re very concerned about price inflation for food products.”

Since the pandemic began in March of 2020, farms have remained fully operational, Alstede said. Workers, who are considered “essential employees” by the State of New Jersey, have remained on the job throughout the pandemic, and farmers have taken on the added expense of providing all workers with personal protective equipment (PPE).

“I would also tell you that our essential workers are tired. We’ve never stopped working since March of last year and I’ve worked nonstop in a market that has been tight with labor throughout,” Alstede said. “We’re operating under conditions that require us to provide a tremendous amount of PPE and other safeguards to ensure the health and safety and welfare of our customers and workforce.”

Alstede said farmer workers have been the “most consistent, reliable people for the residents of this state are they are very tired, and they need a break – and the only way we can achieve that break going into another growing season is by getting additional workers.”

“So, it’s certainly time for people to return to work and it’s time, in my opinion, to stop paying people not to work,” Alstede said.

More than 150 people attended the May 11 New Jersey Business Town Hall on the hiring crisis, including 20 federal and state lawmakers or their staffs.