Jeb Fields, Bampasidou, Maria
Maria Bampasidou and Jeb S. Fields
It’s springtime and the nurseries are buzzing with activity. As suppliers of flowers, shrubs, trees, seasonal vegetables and fruit, as well as other necessary garden supplies, nurseries are a popular destination as the weather improves. This season nursery products are in high demand for landscape contractors, landscape architects, and people working on their yards and gardens. Nurseries also supply wholesale and retail distribution firms, such as garden centers, home stores and distribution centers. For Louisiana, the nursery industry is one of the strongest economic factors in the central and southern regions of the state. Although many Louisianians appreciate the end products and services of nurseries, the challenges of the industry to keep up with increasing demand are hidden.
With a total of 587 certified nursery operations in Louisiana, the nursery industry had a value of $178.57 million in 2019, according to the 2019 LSU AgCenter Ag Summary, and earned $107.8 million in sales, according to the 2019 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture. The industry is growing rapidly. Prior to the pandemic, national surveys showed the Louisiana nursery industry moving from 24th to 16th in state rankings for nursery production in 2018. The pandemic added more stress to local nurseries, which have seen an increased demand for their products coinciding with stay-at-home orders, social distancing regulations and fragmented supply chains. With so many residents forced to stay at home, the demand for improved landscapes skyrocketed. Many people turned to gardening as a hobby or a way to cope with stress.
Major suppliers have estimated that new gardeners number over 15 million nationally since the COVID-19 pandemic. The Louisiana nursery industry recorded record sales years in 2020, and then broke those records in 2021, with many nurseries reporting selling their entire inventory. These record years have seen nurseries continue to expand and increase production year-round to keep up with growing demand. As they push forward with increased production this year, nurseries are coping with limited access to growing media and containers and other resources, persisting supply chain disruptions, price fluctuations caused by energy prices and other rising costs, and increased labor costs.
While the nursery industry is spread throughout the state, Rapides, Tangipahoa and St. Tammany parishes have the highest concentration of nurseries. The nursery industry employs about 50,000 people each year. Nursery production is incredibly labor intensive, with few tasks able to be automated. As such, labor costs are always one of the largest expense categories in a nursery. These labor-intensive tasks include blending, mixing and testing growing media and applying fertilizers; transplanting, weeding, thinning or pruning crops; applying pesticides; organizing, spacing and moving containers; and cleaning, grading, sorting, packing and loading harvested products. Though tasks are performed year-round, peak production season for the Louisiana nurseries typically occurs from March to May.
Access to labor, particularly skilled labor, is always discussed as a top priority among members of the nursery industry. Many nurseries in Louisiana, particularly the larger nurseries, have turned to the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program to secure labor during peak seasons. The H-2A program allows agricultural employers to hire workers from other countries for short-term work that lasts 10 months or fewer if those jobs cannot first be filled by American workers. The majority of H-2A workers are employed for about 10 months at a time. Employers must provide housing for these workers, and they must pay a wage at least equal to the federal adverse effect wage rate of $12.45 per hour in Louisiana, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In fiscal year 2020, 275 workers were employed by 30 nurseries, and in fiscal year 2021 there were 517 workers employed in 35 nurseries. Data for fiscal year 2022 are not yet indicative of demand because the timing of the hiring starts in the second and third quarters of the fiscal year.
Labor shortages associated with the seasonal nature of employment in the nursery industry were exacerbated during the pandemic. The pandemic affected demand and supply of labor and changed labor conditions in all industries. During the pandemic, nursery employees were deemed essential, and a struggle began to secure labor and provide safe working conditions for employees. Sanitation and protective equipment, such as masks and dividers, are some of the added costs to labor expenses the industry faced. Hiring and maintaining workers added a financial cost to businesses with the implementation of distancing and contact-tracing guidelines. Nurseries had additional challenges to address: Keeping on payroll and accommodating the same number of employees and allowing a two-week quarantine time, sickness benefits, and time off caring for family members. As measures and restrictions were lifted and businesses reopened, there was still a shortage in labor that can be attributed to low wages and competition for unskilled labor, despite numerous businesses offering higher wages.
Labor issues in the nursery industry are not easily solved, considering the nature and seasonality of employment and competition from other industries. Despite the benefits associated with the H-2A guest worker program, particularly securing seasonal workers in times of need, which allows nurseries to cope with labor shortages, few Louisiana nurseries rely on the H-2A program. The cost of the program and the bureaucratic hurdles are commonly mentioned as barriers for applying to the program by industries. Moreover, prolonged impact of the pandemic also raises concerns on ways the industry needs may change and how it will affect securing labor.
Maria Bampasidou is an assistant professor in the LSU AgCenter Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness Department, and Jeb Fields is an assistant research coordinator and extension specialist at the LSU AgCenter Hammond Research Station.
(This article appears in the spring 2022 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)
Megan Garcia, a worker from Honduras who came to Louisiana through the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program, makes cuttings of azalea plants at Windmill Nursery near Franklinton. Photo by Kyle Peveto
Nursery workers distribute trees at LaCroix nursery near Kentwood. Most nurseries in Louisiana rely on temporary agricultural workers from other countries to fill their labor needs. Provided photo
Workers make cuttings of azalea plants at Windmill Nursery near Franklinton. Photo by Kyle Peveto