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Demand for direct-hire labor in agriculture is seasonal

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has decreased labor availability in many sectors of the economy. In agriculture, labor inputs consist of unpaid farm operator labor (including spouse and family labor), direct-hire labor, and labor contracted through a third party. In 2018, 62 percent of total farm labor hours were unpaid, while the remaining 38 percent were paid. The majority (82 percent) of labor expenditures were to compensate hired employees, while 18 percent were spent on contracted labor. Paid labor hours are concentrated in certain time periods and regions, largely reflecting the importance and cyclicality of specialty crop production (which includes fruits, vegetables, and nursery crops). In the Atlantic region, paid labor hours peaked in the first quarter, whereas in the rest of the country, labor hours peaked in the second or third quarters. The Western region of the United States accounted for 35 percent of total employee labor hours, and the bulk of labor hours (37 percent) were recorded in the third quarter. If last year’s patterns hold, demand for farm-employed labor in the West could steadily increase and peak in the summer months. While the data in this chart predate the COVID-19 pandemic, agricultural workers have been deemed essential and information on the demand for these workers can provide insight into the potential impacts of the pandemic. This chart is based on data from the Economic Research Service data product, ARMS Farm Financial and Crop Production Practices, updated July 2020.

Smaller farms often rely on the principal operators and their spouses for labor, while larger farms rely on hired labor

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The U.S. agricultural workforce consists of a mixture of two groups of workers: (1) self-employed farm operators and their family members, referred to as “unpaid labor” because their remuneration comes out of farm profits rather than a wage; and (2) paid labor such as hired and contract workers that receive wages. Overall, between 2014 and 2018, U.S. farms used about 59 percent operator, spouse, and family labor, compared to 41 percent paid labor. However, farms of different sizes relied on different mixes of labor. Principal operators and their spouses provided most of the labor hours (76 percent) used on small farms, those with annual gross cash farm income (GCFI) under $350,000. That share fell to 43 percent on midsize farms (GCFI between $350,000 and $999,999), 17 percent on large farms (GCFI between $1 million and $4,999,999), and 2 percent on very large farms (GCFI of $5 million or more). Large and very large farms relied most on hired labor, which provided 64 and 74 percent of the labor hours on those farms, respectively. By comparison, hired labor provided about 12 percent of labor hours on small farms and 39 percent on midsize farms. Contract laborers were important on very large farms (particularly in fruit and vegetable operations), contributing 20 percent of labor hours. This chart updates data found in the March 2018 ERS report, Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture.

The production of five popular vegetables relies on foreign labor

Monday, June 29, 2020

In 2019, tomatoes for the fresh market, harvested by hand, were valued at $705 million, while sweet corn production, typically harvested by hand or machine, was valued at $652 million, and sweet potatoes, for which workers are required for machine operation and post-harvest handling, was valued at $588 million. The production of these and other vegetables grown in the United States may be affected by disruptions of foreign labor flows. An estimated 10 percent of all hired farm workers are foreign nationals employed on temporary work visas under the H-2A agricultural workers program. Restrictions that affected the issuance of new H-2A visas at U.S. consulates starting March 18, 2020, were relaxed on April 20, 2020, which may have alleviated shortages of available workers. H-2A application disclosure data through the second quarter of fiscal year 2020 revealed that a significant majority of the H-2A workers with job start dates of mid-March or later had been hired as laborers for asparagus, sweet potatoes, sweet corn, cucumbers, and tomatoes. These five vegetable commodities, therefore, are among those most likely to be affected by a short-term reduction in the inflow of H-2A workers. Together, these vegetables accounted for 12 percent of the total production value of U.S. vegetables in 2019. This chart is based on the Economic Research Service’s Vegetables and Pulses Outlook reports and H-2A application disclosure data from the Department of Labor.

H-2A positions increased fivefold between fiscal 2005 and 2019

Friday, May 22, 2020

The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program provides a legal means to bring foreign-born workers into the United States on a temporary basis. Workers employed on an H-2A visa are allowed to remain in the U.S. for up to 10 months at a time. Employers must demonstrate, and the U.S. Department of Labor must certify, that efforts to recruit U.S. workers were not successful. Employers must also pay a region-specific minimum wage, known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, which is set at the average wage for crop and livestock workers in that region in the prior year, as measured in USDA’s Farm Labor Survey. In addition, employers must pay for application and visa processing fees, provide housing for their H-2A workers, and pay for their domestic and international transportation. One of the clearest indicators of the scarcity of farm labor is the fact that the number of H-2A positions requested and approved has increased fivefold in the past 14 years—from just over 48,000 positions certified in fiscal 2005 to nearly 258,000 in fiscal 2019. The average duration of an H-2A certification in fiscal 2019 was 5.3 months, implying that the 258,000 positions certified represented about 114,000 full-year equivalents. The impact of this year’s shelter-in-place restrictions due to COVID-19 are not reflected in the data discussed. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service topic page for Farm Labor, updated April 2020.

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

Friday, May 1, 2020

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.

Minimum hourly agricultural wage rates are highest in Washington and Oregon

Monday, March 2, 2020

The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program provides a legal means to bring in foreign-born workers into the United States on a short-term basis. Workers employed on an H-2A visa may remain in the U.S. for up to 10 months at a time. Employers must demonstrate and the U.S. Department of Labor must certify that efforts to recruit U.S. workers were not successful. Employers must also pay a State-specific minimum wage, known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR). The rate is set at the region’s average farm wage to prevent H-2A employment from negatively affecting domestic farmworkers by lowering their wages. For fiscal 2019, this minimum hourly wage was highest in Oregon and Washington at $15.03, followed by Hawaii at $14.73. The wage rate was also high in the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas at $14.38. By comparison, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina had the lowest minimum wages at $11.13. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service topic page for Farm Labor, updated January 2020.

ICYMI... Average age of all hired farm laborers is rising, driven by the aging of foreign-born farm laborers

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Between 2006 and 2017, the average age of hired farm laborers (excluding managers, supervisors, and other supporting occupations) has risen 8 percent—from 35.8 years to 38.8 years. This increase has been entirely driven by the aging of foreign-born farm laborers, who made up between 54 and 58 percent of the workforce over this period. Their average age rose 16 percent, from 35.7 in 2006 to 41.6 in 2017. In contrast, the average age of farm laborers born in the United States (including Puerto Rico) has remained roughly constant. The main reason for the aging of the foreign-born farm laborer population has been the decline (starting in 2008) in the flow of new immigrants, who tend to be younger. One response to the aging of the farm workforce has been to increase the use of mechanical aids, such as hydraulic platforms to replace ladders in orchards and mobile conveyor belts to reduce the distance that heavy loads must be carried in the fields. These changes may enable workers to prolong their careers, and may also make it easier for more women to work in agriculture. This chart appears in the ERS topic page for Farm Labor, updated December 2018. It is also in the Amber Waves article, “U.S. Hired Farm Workforce Is Aging,” published in May 2019. This Chart of Note was originally published May 8, 2019.

ICYMI . . . Rising wages point to a tighter farm labor market in the United States

Thursday, September 19, 2019

In recent years, farmers, growers, and ranchers throughout the United States have expressed concerns about the challenges of hiring an adequate number of qualified farmworkers at an economically viable wage. A prominent indicator of a tighter farm labor market in the United States is the rising real (inflation-adjusted) wage for farmworkers. Between 2014 and 2018, the average hourly real wage for nonsupervisory hired farmworkers (in 2018 dollars) rose from $12.00 to $13.25, an increase of 10.4 percent. This increase in the real wage for farm labor is the fastest experienced over a 4-year period during the past two decades. Moreover, growth in farmworker wages was faster than growth in nonfarm wages. From 2014 to 2018, the hourly real wage for all nonsupervisory production workers outside agriculture rose from $21.90 to $22.97 (in 2018 dollars), an increase of 3.5 percent. Meanwhile, the farm wage rose from 54.8 percent of the nonfarm wage in 2014 to 58.5 percent in 2018. This chart is updated with newly released 2018 data and appears in the February 2019 Amber Waves Finding, “Rising Wages Point to a Tighter Farm Labor Market in the United States.” This Chart of Note was originally published March 4, 2019.

ICYMI... Smaller farms often rely on the principal operators and their spouses for labor, while larger farms rely on hired labor

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Farms of different sizes rely on different mixes of labor. During the 5 years encompassing 2013–2017, the principal operator and the operator’s spouse provided most of the labor hours (75 percent) used on small farms—those with annual gross cash farm income (GCFI) under $350,000. That share fell to 44 percent on midsize farms (GCFI between $350,000 and $999,999), 19 percent on large farms (GCFI between $1 million and $4,999,999), and 2 percent on very large farms (GCFI of $5 million or more). Large and very large farms relied most on hired labor, which provided 64 and 69 percent of the labor hours on those farms, respectively. By comparison, hired labor provided about 12 percent of labor hours on small farms and 39 percent on midsize farms. Small and midsized farms are more numerous, but account for less production overall. Overall, principal operators and their spouses provided 47 percent of the labor hours used on U.S. farms in 2013–17, while hired labor provided 35 percent, and other operators and other unpaid family labor provided another 9 percent of total hours, the same share as contract labor (workers employed by firms hired by the farm). Contract laborers were particularly important on very large farms, contributing over 27 percent of labor hours. This chart updates data found in the March 2018 ERS report, Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture. This Chart of Note was originally published April 15, 2019.

Women account for an increasing share of hired farm workforce

Friday, August 23, 2019

Errata: On August 26, 2019, the chart’s vertical axis labels were adjusted to accurately align with their corresponding horizontal lines.

The share of women farmworkers fell during the Great Recession—from 18.7 percent in 2007 to 17.6 percent in 2009—as the nonfarm economy declined and more men moved into agriculture. As nonfarm job prospects improved, however, many men left agriculture and the share of women farmworkers recovered and continued growing steadily, reaching 25.0 percent in 2017. This rising share may have been facilitated in part by labor-saving technologies that decreased the physical burdens placed on farmworkers. As wages rose, some growers adopted mechanical aids, such as hydraulic platforms (which replace ladders in tree-fruit harvesting) and mobile conveyor belts (which reduce the distance heavy loads must be carried). These aids may have allowed more women and older workers to perform tasks historically performed by younger men. The average age of all farmworkers also rose from 36.2 years in 2007 to 38.8 years in 2017. This chart appears in the ERS topic page for Farm Labor, updated June 2019.

High rates of disability among farmers are concentrated in the South

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Farmers face various occupational hazards (such as machinery, livestock, and chemicals) that can lead to temporary or permanent disabilities. The U.S. Census Bureau defines disabilities as having at least one of the following health difficulties: vision, hearing, physical, cognitive, self-care (difficulty dressing or bathing), or independent living (difficulty performing errands, such as visits to the doctor’s office or shopping). Recent ERS research estimated that an average of about 20 percent of U.S. farmers (395,000 people) had a disability at some point between 2008 and 2016. The probability of disability among farmers increased with age but was lower for farmers who had higher education levels, were female (compared to male), or were married (compared to unmarried). The most common disabilities included physical (10 percent of farmers) and hearing (8 percent of farmers). Average disability rates varied by State. For example, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Iowa were in the quintile with the lowest disability rates on average (12.3 percent to 16.3 percent), while Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee were in that with the highest farmer disability rates (23.0 percent to 27.1 percent). This chart appears in the April 2019 Amber Waves finding, “Disabilities in the U.S. Farm Population.”

Average age of all hired farm laborers is rising, driven by the aging of foreign-born farm laborers

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Between 2006 and 2017, the average age of hired farm laborers (excluding managers, supervisors, and other supporting occupations) has risen 8 percent—from 35.8 years to 38.8 years. This increase has been entirely driven by the aging of foreign-born farm laborers, who made up between 54 and 58 percent of the workforce over this period. Their average age rose 16 percent, from 35.7 in 2006 to 41.6 in 2017. In contrast, the average age of farm laborers born in the United States (including Puerto Rico) has remained roughly constant. The main reason for the aging of the foreign-born farm laborer population has been the decline (starting in 2008) in the flow of new immigrants, who tend to be younger. One response to the aging of the farm workforce has been to increase the use of mechanical aids, such as hydraulic platforms to replace ladders in orchards and mobile conveyor belts to reduce the distance that heavy loads must be carried in the fields. These changes may enable workers to prolong their careers, and may also make it easier for more women to work in agriculture. This chart appears in the ERS topic page for Farm Labor, updated December 2018. It is also in the Amber Waves article, “U.S. Hired Farm Workforce Is Aging,” published in May 2019.

Wage and salary employment in agriculture is most heavily distributed in the Far West and Southeastern United States

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Every region of the United States produces agricultural goods and employs farm workers for a variety of essential tasks. However, despite the ubiquity of agricultural production throughout the Nation, wage and salary employment in agriculture and related support services has been most concentrated in two parts of the United States: the Far West and the Southeast. From the late 1990s to 2006–08, reflecting changes in the total number of farmworkers at the national level, the Far West’s share dropped from 40 percent to 35 percent, and the Southeast’s share declined from 22 percent to 20 percent. By 2017, the Far West’s share had risen again to 40 percent, while the Southeast’s rebounded slightly to 21 percent. Between 2009 and 2017, farm labor employment grew from roughly 465,000 workers to 536,000 workers in the Far West and from 255,000 to 281,000 in the Southeast. The Far West and Southeast are leaders in farm labor employment partly due to the commodities they produce, including vegetable and melon farming, fruit and tree nut farming, and greenhouse, nursery, and floriculture production—commodities for which labor’s share of total operating expenses is highest. Conversely, oilseed and grain farming (typical in the Mideast, Great Lakes, and Plains) are among the least labor intensive in terms of share of operating expenses. This chart appears in the ERS report, Farm Labor Markets in the United States and Mexico Pose Challenges for U.S. Agriculture released in November 2018.

Smaller farms often rely on the principal operators and their spouses for labor, while larger farms rely on hired labor

Monday, April 15, 2019

Farms of different sizes rely on different mixes of labor. During the 5 years encompassing 2013–2017, the principal operator and the operator’s spouse provided most of the labor hours (75 percent) used on small farms—those with annual gross cash farm income (GCFI) under $350,000. That share fell to 44 percent on midsize farms (GCFI between $350,000 and $999,999), 19 percent on large farms (GCFI between $1 million and $4,999,999), and 2 percent on very large farms (GCFI of $5 million or more). Large and very large farms relied most on hired labor, which provided 64 and 69 percent of the labor hours on those farms, respectively. By comparison, hired labor provided about 12 percent of labor hours on small farms and 39 percent on midsize farms. Small and midsized farms are more numerous, but account for less production overall. Overall, principal operators and their spouses provided 47 percent of the labor hours used on U.S. farms in 2013–17, while hired labor provided 35 percent, and other operators and other unpaid family labor provided another 9 percent of total hours, the same share as contract labor (workers employed by firms hired by the farm). Contract laborers were particularly important on very large farms, contributing over 27 percent of labor hours. This chart updates data found in the March 2018 ERS report, Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture.

H2-A visas granted and positions certified have grown rapidly since 2005

Monday, April 1, 2019

Rising farm wages and recent reports from farmers point to a tightening farm labor market in the United States. Another sign of labor scarcity has been the increased use of the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program, which provides a mechanism for growers to bring in nonimmigrant foreign workers on a temporary or seasonal basis. This increase is noteworthy in light of the costs associated with the program: State-level minimum wages for H-2A workers are set at the prevailing average farm wage as determined by the Farm Labor Survey, and growers must provide housing, as well as pay application, visa, and transportation costs. In addition, growers have long complained about the program’s bureaucratic complexity, and some have charged that its administrative processes often move too slowly for workers to arrive on time. Despite these concerns, the H-2A program has expanded rapidly in recent years, from about 48,300 positions certified in fiscal year (FY) 2005 to 200,000 in FY 2017. Data from the first three quarters of FY 2018 indicate that certifications were up 21 percent over the first three quarters of FY 2017. The number of H-2A visas granted is less than the number of H-2A positions certified because some visa recipients work in multiple H-2A positions, and some certified positions go unfilled. This chart appears in the ERS report, Farm Labor Markets in the United States and Mexico Pose Challenges for U.S. Agriculture, released in November 2018.

Rising wages point to a tighter farm labor market in the United States

Monday, March 4, 2019

In recent years, farmers, growers, and ranchers throughout the United States have expressed concerns about the challenges of hiring an adequate number of qualified farmworkers at an economically viable wage. A prominent indicator of a tighter farm labor market in the United States is the rising real (inflation-adjusted) wage for farmworkers. Between 2014 and 2018, the average hourly real wage for nonsupervisory hired farmworkers (in 2018 dollars) rose from $12.00 to $13.25, an increase of 10.4 percent. This increase in the real wage for farm labor is the fastest experienced over a 4-year period during the past two decades. Moreover, growth in farmworker wages was faster than growth in nonfarm wages. From 2014 to 2018, the hourly real wage for all nonsupervisory production workers outside agriculture rose from $21.90 to $22.97 (in 2018 dollars), an increase of 3.5 percent. Meanwhile, the farm wage rose from 54.8 percent of the nonfarm wage in 2014 to 58.5 percent in 2018. This chart is updated with newly released 2018 data and appears in the February 2019 Amber Waves Finding, “Rising Wages Point to a Tighter Farm Labor Market in the United States.”

Although farm wages have increased, labor costs as a share of farm gross cash income remained relatively flat

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Farm wages have risen since 2000, reaching an annual average of $13.32 per hour in 2017. However, farm labor costs as a share of farm gross cash income do not show an upward trend over 2000-16, as rising wage rates for farm workers have been offset by a number of factors, including rising labor productivity and output prices for some commodities. For all farms, labor costs averaged 10.1 percent of gross cash income in 2016, compared to 10.6 percent in 2000. For the more labor-intensive fruit, vegetable, and horticulture operations, labor costs in 2016 amounted to 26.7 percent of gross cash income, compared to 28.6 percent in 2000. For farms specializing in dairy, the labor cost share of gross cash income was 10.2 percent in 2016, compared to 9.5 percent in 2000. This chart appears in the ERS topic page for Farm Labor, updated May 2018.

Hourly wages for hired farmworkers have grown steadily since 1989

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Hired farmworkers are found in a variety of occupations, including field crop workers, nursery workers, livestock workers, graders and sorters, agricultural inspectors, supervisors, and hired farm managers. Since 1989, the average hourly wage for hired farmworkers (excluding contract labor) has increased at almost 1 percent per year, after adjusting for inflation—reaching an annual average of $13.32 per hour in 2017. Wages grew by 3.7 percent in 2015 and 2.2 percent in 2016, but grew only 0.5 percent in 2017. Wage growth for nonsupervisory farmworkers was lower than the average for all hired farmworkers. In 2017, nonsupervisory farmworkers averaged $12.47 per hour, with little difference between crop and livestock wage rates. Higher demand for farm labor and a lower supply of immigrant labor since 2007 have contributed to rising wages. This chart appears in the ERS topic page for Farm Labor, updated May 2018.

Farming is important to the economies of many counties in the Plains States

Monday, January 11, 2016

ERS determined that farming was an important part of the local economy in 391 nonmetro counties and 53 metro counties, based on data on farming employment and earnings from the period 2010-12. These farming-dependent counties had at least 25 percent of average annual employee and self-proprietor personal earnings attributable to farming during 2010-12, or 16 percent or more of county jobs in farming in the same period, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The proportion of earnings derived from farming ranged up to 83 percent of total employee and self-proprietor personal earnings and farming employment ranged up to 49 percent of total jobs among farming-dependent counties. Farming-dependent counties were primarily located in sparsely populated areas remote from major urban centers and are geographically concentrated in the Midwest and Great Plains. ERS analysis reveals the total number of farming-dependent counties fell from 511 in 2001 to 444 in 2010-12, continuing its long-term decline. A version of this map is found in the Amber Waves article, “ERS County Economic Types Show a Changing Rural Landscape,” and the underlying codes may be found in the ERS data product, County Typology Codes, updated December 7, 2015.

New county patterns of U.S. Hispanic population change emerge

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Hispanic population growth has slowed in both rural (nonmetro) and urban (metro) areas of the United States since the Great Recession, due to lower fertility rates and a decline in immigration, especially from Mexico. These demographic trends, along with shifts in the location of job opportunities, shifted geographic patterns of Hispanic population growth and decline across rural counties. According to the latest U.S. Census estimates, rural population growth remains above 2 percent per year for Hispanics, higher than for the non-Hispanic population (which is declining), but less than half the rate of growth seen during the 1990s and early 2000s. This downturn is most visible in farming and ranching counties in the American Southwest and in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, areas that have for centuries had large Hispanic concentrations. Lower immigration contributed to this decrease, as did migration to new energy-sector jobs, most noticeable in the northern Great Plains in response to the shale oil and gas boom. Growth rates over 75 percent occurred in 79 rural counties, generally areas with few Hispanics in 2010 that added fewer than 10,000 new Hispanic residents as a whole. This map is based on the Atlas of Rural and Small Town America.

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