Labor shortages at critical times can lead growers to leave product in the field or to delay harvesting

This bar chart shows the average share of production costs comprised by labor and harvest for selected produce crops in 2018.

Labor is a relatively high share of the cost of growing, harvesting, and packing fresh produce. Labor and harvest comprise nearly half of average total production costs for lettuce and more than one-third for fresh tomatoes, spinach, and peaches. Rising wages and decreasing labor availability may combine to increase the costs to harvest the produce in a field. During times when harvest labor is costly, or if growers encounter a significant shortage of labor in the field, growers may abandon the crop before harvest or make other production and marketing decisions that directly affect levels of food loss. Data are not yet available to determine how agricultural labor production costs or food loss have changed due to the emergence of the global pandemic COVID-19. This chart appears in the article, “Food Loss: Why Food Stays On the Farm or Off the Market,” in the March 2020 issue of the Economic Research Service’s Amber Waves magazine.

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