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Image: Farm Economy

Background

Hired farmworkers include field crop workers, nursery workers, livestock workers, farmworker supervisors, and hired farm managers. Some employment estimates also include support personnel on farms, as well as agricultural service workers, who are brought to farms by specialized contractors rather than hired by farm operators. Hired farmworkers make up less than 1 percent of all U.S. wage and salary workers, but they play an essential role in U.S. agriculture. Wages, salaries, and contract labor expenses represent roughly 17 percent of total variable farm costs, and as much as 40 percent of costs in labor intensive crops such as fruits, vegetables, and nursery products. Hired farmworkers continue to be one of the most economically disadvantaged groups in the United States.

Hired farmworkers are employed in both metro and nonmetro areas. The statistics presented in this chapter refer to farmworkers nationwide rather than in nonmetro areas only, unless otherwise indicated.

The following information is available in this chapter:

Number and Geographical Distribution of Hired Farmworkers

According to the Farm Labor Survey (FLS) of the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), hired farmworkers (including agricultural service workers) make up a third of all those working on farms; the other two-thirds are self-employed farm operators and their family members. The majority of hired farmworkers are found on the nation's largest farms, with sales over $500,000 per year.

The average number of hired farmworkers has steadily declined over the last century, from roughly 3.4 million to just over 1 million. Because the U.S. labor force grew, agricultural employment as a proportion of total employment has declined even more sharply. According to the FLS, the annual average number of people employed as hired farmworkers, including agricultural service workers, decreased from 1,142,000 in 1990 to 1,032,000 in 2007. Since then it has held steady at just above one million. In 2012, the total was 1,063,000 of which 576,000 were full-year positions, 199,000 were part-year positions, and an estimated 288,000 were agricultural service workers brought to farms by contractors. Employment is highly seasonal: in January of 2011, there were 808,000 workers, while in July the figure stood at 1,184,000.

Farm employment was less affected by the 2007-09 recession than was nonfarm employment. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, farm wage and salary employment fell by 1.5 percent between 2007 and 2009, compared to 4.7 percent for the nonfarm economy. The Farm Labor Survey found that average farm employment in 2012 was above 2007 levels.

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The Current Population Survey (CPS) counts farmworkers using a household rather than a farm survey, and provides more demographic detail. In 2012, the CPS estimated average hired farm employment at 787,000, which is close to the FLS total excluding agricultural service workers (775,000).

Of these farmworkers, 56 percent work in crop agriculture, and the remaining 44 percent work in livestock. Roughly 37 percent of all hired farmworkers live in the Southwest (defined to include California), and 25 percent live in the Midwest region. Two States--California and Texas--account for more than one-third of all farmworkers.

More farmworkers are located in metropolitan areas (56 percent) than in nonmetro counties. In California, 99 percent of farmworkers are located in metro areas, and in Washington State the figure is 95 percent.

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Demographic Characteristics

The table below divides the hired farmworkers found in the 2012 CPS into two groups: (i) laborers and field supervisors, and (ii) hired farm managers. About half of all laborers and supervisors are Hispanic, while managers are mostly non-Hispanic whites. Thirty-one percent of laborers and supervisors have less than a ninth grade education, compared to 6 percent for farm managers and three percent for the U.S. workforce as a whole. Laborers and supervisors are also younger and less likely to be married than either hired farm managers or the average U.S. worker

Note that figures for these and other characteristics differ somewhat depending on the set of workers being analyzed and the data sources used. Livestock farmworkers, for example, have more stability and less seasonal employment, and consequently, their traits more resemble those of all wage and salary workers than of field crop farmworkers. Similarly, data from the Current Population Survey reflect a more established and native-born population than data collected from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS).

Fifty-nine percent of farm laborers and supervisors found in the CPS are U.S. citizens, compared to 91 percent for managers, and for all U.S. wage and salary workers. The CPS data do not indicate how many of those without citizenship are legally authorized to work, although some information on this question may be found in the NAWS, discussed below.

Demographic characteristics of hired farmworkers and all wage and salary workers, 2012
ItemFarm laborers and supervisorsFarm managersAll hired farm workersAll U.S. wage and salary workers
Number 676,000 111,000 787,000 142,653,000
Percent male 82 81 82 53
Median age in years 34 38 35 42
Percent under age 25 27 15 25 13
Percent over age 44 30 41 31 44
Percent married 51 61 53 56
Percent White (race) 91 96 92 81
Percent Hispanic (ethnicity) 50 16 45 15
Percent foreign-born 47 11 42 16
Percent with U.S. citizenship 59 91 64 91
Percent with less than 9th grade education 31 6 27 3
Percent with some college 20 51 25 64
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service analysis of data from U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey.

Unemployment Rates by Occupation

Hired farmworkers have historically experienced above-average unemployment rates in part because of the highly seasonal nature of agriculture; however, their low levels of education and often limited English-language skills compared with the general population also explain much of their labor market disadvantage.

Unemployment rates for hired farmworkers, as for many other major occupational groups, more than doubled between 2007 and 2010, to 15.9 percent. Only construction and extraction occupations saw a greater increase and higher resulting levels of unemployment in 2010. Employment levels for hired farmworkers, however, did not decrease over this period. This apparent disparity may be due to several factors, including greater turnover in the farm labor market and a larger number of former farmworkers rejoining the labor force. Since 2010, the unemployment rate for hired farmworkers has fallen slightly, and in 2012 it stood at 13.5 percent, compared to 8.1 percent for the national average of all occupations.

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Wages

According to the FLS, the real average hourly earnings of non-supervisory farm laborers has been between $10.50 and $10.80 since 2007 (in constant inflation-adjusted dollars, at 2012 prices), and stood at $10.80 in 2012. Real farmworker wages have risen at 0.8 percent per year since 1990.

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Employment Statistics program provides an alternative estimate of farmworker wages that permits a comparison between farm occupations, and with low-wage occupations in the nonfarm economy.

Hourly and annual earnings, selected occupations, May 2011
ItemAverage wagesMedian hourly wage
 HourlyAnnual 
Farm occupations
First-line supervisors of farming, fishing, and forestry workers 21.97 45,690 20.48
Agricultural inspectors 20.25 42,120 19.90
Animal breeders 18.11 37,670 16.79
Graders and sorters, agricultural products 9.95 20,690 9.17
Agricultural equipment operators 12.90 26,830 12.13
Farmworkers and laborers: crop, nursery, and greenhouse 9.62 20,020 8.99
Farmworkers: farm, ranch, and aquacultural animals 11.60 24,130 10.62
Agricultural workers, all other 13.91 28,940 12.16
Selected nonfarm occupations
Maids and housekeepers 10.31 21,440 9.32
Construction laborers 16.43 34,170 14.30
Landscaping and groundskeeping workers 12.33 25,650 11.23
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service using data from Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Legal Status of Hired Crop Farmworkers

The U.S. Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) is the only survey that ascertains the legal status of noncitizen farmworkers, and the only survey that identifies hired farmworkers as migrant or settled. However, NAWS is limited to hired crop farmworkers and excludes hired livestock farmworkers.

The share of hired crop farmworkers who were not legally authorized to work in the U.S. grew from roughly 15 percent in 1989-91 to almost 55 percent in 1999-2001. Since then it has fluctuated around 50 percent. Since 2001, the share who are citizens has increased from about 21 percent to about 33 percent, while the share who hold green cards or other forms of work authorization has fallen from about 25 percent to about 19 percent.

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Country of Origin

The share of hired crop farmworkers who were born in the United States or Puerto Rico fell from about 40 percent in 1989-91 to a low of about 18 percent in 1998-2000, while the share born in Mexico rose from 54 percent to 79 percent over the same interval. Since then, the U.S. and Puerto Rican share has rebounded to about 29 percent and the Mexican share has fallen to about 68 percent. The share from Central America and other countries has never exceeded 6 percent.

Since 2000, however, Hispanic workers have also been employed in increasing numbers in the dairy industry (not covered by NAWS). One study found that 75 percent of Hispanic dairy workers in New York State were from Mexico, 24 percent were from Guatemala, and one percent were from Honduras (see "Survey of Hispanic Dairy Workers in New York State PDF icon (16x16)").

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Migration Patterns

Almost three-quarters of hired crop farmworkers are not migrants, but are considered settled, meaning they work at a single location within 75 miles of their home. This number is up from 42 percent in 1996-98.

Among migrant workers, the largest group are "shuttlers," who work at a single farm location more than 75 miles from home, and may cross an international border to get there. They made up about 12 percent of hired crop farmworkers in 2007-09, down from about 24 percent in 1996-98.

More common in the past, the "follow the crop" migrant farm worker, who moves from state to state working on different crops as the seasons advance, is now a relative rarity. These workers make up just five percent of those surveyed by the NAWS in 2007-09, down from a high of 14 percent in 1992-94. The final category in the figure are the newcomers to farming, whose migration patterns have not yet been established.

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Links to Key Data Sources

 

Last updated: Thursday, October 30, 2014

For more information contact: Thomas Hertz