Since there are no currently active contests, we have switched Climate CoLab to read-only mode.
Learn more at
Skip navigation
Share via:


In the post-fossil-fuel era, who will bring in the harvest? A season in the field could be a rite of passage for U.S. youth.



The U.S. agriculture labor workforce is demographically aging and not being properly replenished (Taborek, 2007; Dwoskin, 2011). In the coming post-fossil-fuel era, demand for farm labor will only increase. Who will bring in the harvest? I propose the creation of a voluntary national service program to engage youth in seasonal agricultural work. Such a program would bridge the labor gap with a segment of the workforce that is fittest for the task. It would also increase environmental literacy, promote an active & healthy lifestyle, and restore dignity to an indispensable form of labor.

Not only farm laborers but also farmers themselves are an aging demographic (USDA, 2009, Hoppe and Banker, 2010). There will be an opening for an entrepreneurial new cohort, ready to take over existing farms, establish new ones, and pioneer sustainable practices. For participants who fall in love with the agricultural life, and might not otherwise have been exposed, FarmCorps could be a stepping-stone to a career in sustainable agriculture. 

In earlier generations, kids and teenagers helped out on parents' and neighbors' farms as a matter of course. (This is why schools traditionally suspended teaching for the summer.) Today we have an opportunity to reap some of those same benefits for youth, while filling a vital strategic national need.

For more about the proposal, see an editorial in the spring 2013 issue of the Journal for Sustainability Education

Category of the action


What actions do you propose?


I propose the creation of a voluntary national service program that would engage youth in seasonal farm labor.

The program would look like this: High school graduates who sign up would be organized in teams that would travel together and work together for a harvest season under the supervision of crew leaders with appropriate qualifications. Participants would earn market wage, and also receive a higher-education incentive, much as do youth who perform national service in the military or programs such as Americorps. The organizers and a growing network of alumni and interested farmers will debrief participants at the end of the season and--if they are interested--help them find the educational opportunities, year-round work opportunities, and entrepreneurial resources they need to further explore the field and start them on their way toward careers in sustainable agriculture and allied fields.

Given current labor shortage patterns, experienced farm workers are unlikely to be displaced by the program. Some will be eligible to participate in it; others might take on leadership and instructional roles.


Q: What's wrong with the agricultural labor force we have today? 

A: Today's U.S. farm labor workforce is about 50% illegal workers, mostly Mexicans (USDA Economic Research Service, 2012). Having illegals causes problems: It undermines border security. It inflames political passions, making sensible immigration reform a non-starter. And illegals are easy to take advange of, creating exploitative situations. On top of all that, it is not sustainable: the current workforce, both legal and illegal, is demographically aging. New blood is needed.

Q. Why don't Americans do those jobs?

A: Some states, concerned about foreigners "taking away American jobs," have cracked down hard on undocumented farm workers. The idea was that this would create employment for American workers. This did not happen--instead, crops went unpicked (Dwoskin, 2011). It appears that agricultural wages, dictated by the global marketplace, are simply too low to attract most working-age Americans, especially given the demanding work conditions. Offering a higher-education incentive, and recognizing the work as a valuable national service, might tip the scales.

Q. Why not expand programs to bring in workers from abroad legally?

A: This is an option. The current H2A visa program for temporary agricultural works is a mess, but it is conceivable that we might reform and expand it. Indeed, futurist George Friedman (The Next 100 Years) predicts that with declining birthrates the U.S. will soon be desparate for workers, and will offer sign-on bonuses to tempt Mexicans and others to come pick our crops. But even assuming that this solution were politically feasible, is it optimal? Why transport workers from half a world away (even today temporary H2A visa workers come from as far as South Africa) when we have local teenagers who work at the mall for comparable wages, and who will spend their earnings locally rather than repatriating them abroad?

Q: Why youth?

A: Seasonal agricultural labor is physically demanding; youth are in peak physical shape.

Seasonal agricultural labor is low-paying; youth are willing to work for entry-level wage.

Seasonal agricultural labor requires no previous experience and offers no opportunity for advancement; youth may be looking for a fun and challenging and cameraderie-building summer job rather than a career.

Seasonal agricultural labor is often migratory; youth are not tied down.

Q: What does all this have to do with climate again?

A: (1) Climate-sensitive agriculture will rely less on gasoline-powered machines, more on human hands. This project helps solve the problem of where those hands are to come from. (2) Shuttling temporary farm workers between countries or continents is wasteful of fossil fuels. This project proposes a local sourcing alternative. (3) Climate-sensitive agriculture will be more small-scale and more geographically dispersed (for the sake of resiliency and reduced transportation requirements) than today's agribusiness model. We will need more entrepreneurial small farmers in every part of the country. This project will help inspire and recruit them. (4) The project will provide tens of thousands of youth with an opportunity to develop environmental literacy and a personal relationship with the land. This will help catalyze a shift in the larger culture toward sensitivity to sustainability and climate concerns. 

Who will take these actions?

The vision is for this to become a national service program, comparable to (or perhaps allied with) AmeriCorps. Proof-of-concept can come from  teams organized at the regional or local level by NGOs, community groups, farmers' associations, universities, or extension programs. 

Even when the program is administered nationally, it could also be locally rooted and retain a local flavor. University campuses, for example, could organize their own local chapters and develop long-term relationships with local producers for mutual benefit. Producers will have a reliable, reputable source of local seasonal labor. Schools will have new service-learning opportunities that could be linked up with classroom teaching. Programs could be developed for incoming students, along the lines of the late-summer Outward-Bound-style hiking and camping programs that are already available to first-year students on many campuses.

If you are aware of a local or regional group already doing something along these lines, please let me know!

Where will these actions be taken?

The vision is that the program will be built up locally and regionally in the U.S. and eventually given the imprimatur of a national service program similar to (or perhaps affiliated with) AmeriCorps.

(Others are welcome to copy the idea in other countries!)


What are other key benefits?

Benefits include:

  1. Provide a labor pool fit to meet the demand for agricultural labor in a post-fossil-fuel era
  2. Increase environmental literacy
  3. Improve physical fitness and health
  4. Provide a fun, camaraderie-building activity for youth
  5. Provide opportunities to bridge and build friendships across the red state / blue state divide
  6. Inspire and build bridges to careers in sustainable agriculture
  7. Restore dignity to an essential form of labor
  8. Provide a meaningful service opportunity to youth, and help them afford higher education 
  9. Reduce the carbon-intensive transporation of workers (legal and illegal) from abroad
  10. By reducing reliance on illegal foreign labor, cool hot tempers and make immigration reform more politically tractable 
  11. Attract new constituencies (articulate youth, universities, parents) to scrutinize and improve agricultural labor and pesticide standards and practices.
  12. Keep agricultural labor wages circulating locally and regionally, rather than being repatriated with foreign workers

What are the proposal’s costs?

Any agricultural labor crew leader has administrative costs, and gets reimbursed (with profit) by the producers the crew works for. A local or regional organization that organized youth to serve nearby farms would face start-up costs, but could expect to similarly earn a profit. In fact, by not transporting workers from great distances, they might have a competitive advantage over traditional crew leaders.

A local or regional organization that provides an incentive (e.g., scholarship, cash) to participants beyond market wage might require outside funding to cover some of the cost of that incentive. (Market wage for agricultural labor is comparable to entry level wages in retail. It might or might not be possible for start-up programs to recruit youth to participate without an extra incentive.)

The vision is that FarmCorps will eventually be established as a national service program providing a scholarship incentive. If tens of thousands participate each year, the scholarships will pose a not-insignificant cost. These will be counterbalanced--probably far, far outweighed--by the national benefits that can be monetized (e.g., #s 1, 3, 6, 10, and 12 from the list above).

Building up the movement--finding start-up partners and allies, getting the word out, building momentum to teh national level--could keep one or two people busy full time for several years.


Time line

Establish local/regional pilots for the 2014 growing season.

Expand in the 2015 growing season and each subsequent season.

Lobby for creation of a national program by 2016 or 2017.

Related proposals


Elizabeth Dwoskin, “Why Americans won’t do dirty jobs,” Bloomberg Business, November 11, 2011 (

Robert Hoppe and David E. Banker, Structure and Finances of U.S. Farms: Family Farm Report, 2010 Edition. Economic Information Bulletin No. (EIB-66) 72 pp, July 2010, p. 25.

Nick Taborek, “Farmers fret over aging workforce in the fields,” May 21, 2007, Medill Reports (, 2009. 2007 Census of Agriculture: United States Summary and State Data, Vol. 1. Table 1.

USDA Economic Research Service. Farm Labor: Background. Last updated July 23, 2012.

For more about the proposal, see an editorial in the spring 2013 issue of the Journal for Sustainability Education