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NC State Professor Wins Grant to Study Labor Issues Affecting Cattle and Dairy Farms in the South

cows in a field

Assistant Professor Alejandro Gutierrez-Li, an economist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, recently won a competitive Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant of $345,000. Together with his collaborators in Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin, the team will study the labor needs, hiring practices and overall sustainability of cattle and dairy farms in the southern United States. 

Alejandro Gutierrez-Li
Assistant Professor Alejandro Gutierrez-Li

Labor is the number one concern of many farmers in North Carolina and other parts of the country. Finding agricultural workers has become increasingly challenging, as domestic workers have moved to other sectors, and foreign workers that came decades ago have retired or returned home. As a response, the H-2A visa program, which allows U.S. farmers to hire farmworkers from other countries legally, has seen a meteoric rise in the last decade. North Carolina has consistently ranked among the top-5 demanding states for H-2A workers. Agriculture is the main economic sector in the state, and some of the most important agricultural commodities grown locally are labor-intensive.

While the H-2A program has served as a lifeline for growers of fruits, vegetables and other crops, its use has been more limited by dairy and cattle farmers. In part, this has been because H-2A regulations do not allow workers to stay all year round, and milk and beef production requires workers every day. The project aims to understand how these farms hire workers and whether they face similar challenges to crop farms in recruiting. The researchers will also investigate the tasks and skills most needed by farmers, and whether farms rely more on family members, local or foreign workers or machines for certain activities.

Over the next three years, Gutierrez-Li and his collaborators will look at ways in which farmers could benefit from the H-2A program if certain improvements to it were made. They will examine concerns about the program’s wage determination, other requirements and the time and costs that it takes to process workers’ applications. They will also consider if regional or industry-specific differences affect how much the H-2A program is used.

Recent immigration projects like the Farm Workforce Modernization Bill (which passed the House but not the Senate) have made this research even more critical and timely. The researchers will study how proposed changes to the H-2A program, such as allowing workers to stay all year round, allocating a minimum number of visas to the dairy sector and providing a pathway to permanent residency could impact the use of the program by cattle and dairy farmers in the South. They will also explore factors like the job market, farm conditions, demographics and economic impact on rural communities surrounding small and medium-sized dairy and cattle operations.

The researchers will use state-of-the-art statistical, mathematical and economic methods to collect and analyze their data. In addition, the project has a strong Extension component, which will allow them to work with and learn from farmers, hold focus groups and present their results to a broad audience of stakeholders. Ultimately, they will propose solutions on how to improve productivity, profitability, sustainability (both financial and environmental) and the quality of life of farmers and farmworkers. The team is particularly interested in reaching out to minority farmers, taking advantage of Gutierrez-Li’s fluency in Spanish and the fact that all the collaborators are from underrepresented minority backgrounds themselves.

The findings from this project will deliver valuable insights into the unique challenges faced by cattle and dairy farms in the southern United States, which, according to Gutierrez-Li, is an understudied region.

“The existing research on agricultural labor issues has mostly focused on California, ignoring the experiences of farmers in other parts of the U.S,” he said. “Before I came to NC State, there wasn’t anybody doing economic research specifically to address the labor needs of producers in North Carolina and the South, who face different challenges and opportunities than farmers on the West Coast.”

In addition to this project, Gutierrez-Li is also continuing work on another SARE-funded research analyzing robotization in dairy in the Midwest. Last year, along with his team of collaborators, he won a $250,000 grant to study the costs and benefits of implementing automatic milking systems.

“I feel really grateful for the confidence that my work is receiving,” Gutierrez-Li said. “In the last two years, my team and I have won almost $600,000 from competitive sources to study agricultural labor issues. It is exciting to be working on topics that have an enormous potential to influence policy and positively impact the well-being of millions of people across the nation.”

Visit our research page to learn more about research in the ARE department.