Episode 164: Shay Myers
Jun 16, 2021
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You’ve probably seen or heard of Shay Myers, third-generation farmer and CEO of Owyhee Produce, through his TikTok and Instagram handle @shayfarmkid. He’s been educating consumers and showing them behind the scenes of his farm on social media, which thankfully helped him harvest this year’s asparagus when there was a worker shortage.
How’d Shay get inspired to start growing on social media? He was speaking with a produce buyer one day who was asking questions about how onions are grown and produced. Being so immersed in this knowledge for years, Shay went into a deep dive, in-depth discussion about things like the translucent scale, try leaf, onion roots, instead of just covering the basics. This was Shay’s ‘aha moment’ of understanding that his view of farming and the rest of the world is quite different. From then on, Shay has been trying to educate not just produce buyers who typically come from very urban settings, but with social media on TikTok and LinkedIn, he’s trying to fulfill the hunger consumers have about understanding where their food comes from and how it is produced.
“It took me a long time to realize that what I consider farming to be and what the average person that’s not associated with farming thought farming was, were two different things and that’s really my mission.” – Shay Myers (3:27-3:40)
So how did Shay use his social media channels and tight-knit audience to create one of the most successful “U-Pick” farms the industry has ever seen?
Like most farms, Shay uses a large number of H-2 workers, which are agricultural guest workers who come to the United States to work for up to nine months at a time. The program is bureaucratically challenging, but very rewarding because of the dedicated and highly-skilled individuals that come to work for the farms. Plus, usually the same workers come back year after year. Unfortunately, there was a typo (yes, a typo) in the application this year, creating some major delays. The clerical errors weren’t caught until about 5 days after the farm needed their workers, so it was too late to do anything. In fact, the farm didn’t get approved until the last week of May when they needed workers starting March 21st (harvest starts between the beginning to middle of April).
Needing to harvest their asparagus without any workers, the farm was in a tough spot. They had enough workers to do some of the picking, but not enough for one of their entire fields, which is about 35 acres. The farm called around, trying to pull workers from California, Washington, Idaho and even Texas, but they were unable to find any more workers.
Did you know labor costs have increased by 40% over the last five years? Although what happened at Shay’s farm was a clerical error, there is a labor crisis in the farming industry and we need to do something about it.
Shay decided to get on TikTok and rant about the situation, needing to save 350,000 pounds of asparagus that were about to go to waste and wondering what to do? Somehow the local media channels picked up on Shay’s call to have people come and participate in a U-pick on the farm and the following Saturday over 6,100 people showed up to pick free asparagus.
Not only was the asparagus not wasted, but people came from as far as Astoria, Oregon, which is almost ten hours away from the farm! They were expecting around 500 to 600 people, but never over 6,100! The crowds started to get so big that people had to sign up to get in.
It may sound like this was a simple and easy solution that thankfully went viral, but it came with its challenges. FSMA, or the Food Safety Modernization Act, is a strict protocol the farm had to follow to make sure the food is safe. Everyone needed to sign the food safety documents before participating in the U-Pick. If someone didn’t sign digitally, when they arrived at the farm, they met with a team member who would also review how to appropriately cut the asparagus, making sure they didn’t walk on the asparagus plant, checking for jewelry, and so on.
Can you imagine having to implement that, unplanned, within 24 hours? It was, however, a great teaching moment to show consumers what farmworkers have to go through every day to ensure proper safety measures are met.
The good news is, not only were people grateful and thanking the farm for the opportunity, but they were making comments about how they’ll never complain about the expensive price of asparagus ever again. With the amount of automation and technology we have today, it’s easy to think that things on the farm are done mechanically. In all actuality, very little is done by machines. There are some mechanized plantings, but in terms of harvesting, almost everything in the produce department is still hand-harvested.
Although Shay was able to find a solution to his worker shortage during his farm’s most recent asparagus harvest, there’s a labor crisis in the farming industry we need to recognize. There’s a shortage of labor availability and the cost of labor is too high, especially when production can be moved to the Southern border and Mexico where the pay is about 10 times less than in America. A fifty-cent minimum wage is a lot more affordable than, for example, Oregon’s $16.44 minimum wage. There are political issues at play, human ethics issues at play, and, as Shay says, “from a food safety standpoint and a food security standpoint, we certainly can do better.”
How to get involved
- Join The Produce Moms Group on Facebook and continue the discussion every week!
- Reach out to us – we’d love to hear more about where you are in life and business! Find out more here.
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Previous episodes you may enjoy
- Episode 163: Seth Karm
- Episode 162: Reno Palombit, Melissa Webb and Kristin Vest
- Episode 161: Erin Petrey
- Episode 160: Sandy Spavone and Kayla Godbey
- Episode 159: Beth McCarthy Smith