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H-2A seasonal worker program has expanded over time

Monday, October 3, 2022

U.S. agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of U.S. domestic workers can fill seasonal farm jobs with temporary foreign workers through the H-2A visa program. The Department of Labor certified around 317,000 temporary jobs in fiscal year (FY) 2021 under the H-2A visa program, more than six times the number certified in 2005. Only about 80 percent of the certified jobs in 2021 resulted in the issuance of a visa. The program has grown partly in response to current U.S. domestic workers finding jobs outside of U.S. agriculture and a drop in newly arrived immigrants who seek U.S. farm jobs. The H-2A program continued to expand in FY 2020 despite the jump in U.S. unemployment caused by lockdowns associated with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Six States accounted for about half of the H-2A jobs filled in 2021 certified: Florida, Georgia, Washington, California, North Carolina, and Louisiana. Nationally, the average H-2A contract in FY 2020 offered 24 weeks of employment and 39.3 hours per week at an average hourly wage of $13. This chart updates information in the ERS bulletin The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Worker Program in 2020, published in August 2022.

Specialty crop farms have the highest labor cost as a portion of total cash expenses

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

A farm's reliance on farm labor varies by commodity specialization. On average, labor costs (including contract labor, hired labor, and worker benefits such as insurance) accounted for about 14 percent of the total farm cash expenses in 2020. Farms specializing in the production of specialty crops, which include fruits, tree nuts, vegetables, beans (pulses) and horticultural nursery crops, had the highest labor costs across farm types, with labor accounting for almost 40 percent of total cash expenses. In contrast, operations specializing in corn and soybeans spent the least on labor costs as a percentage of total cash farm expenses (4 percent and 3 percent, respectively) in 2020. Corn and soybean farms have lower farm labor expenses resulting from higher adoption rates of labor-saving innovations, such as technology, chemical herbicides, etc. This chart updates data found in the Economic Research Service report Farm Size and the Organization of U.S. Crop Farming, published in August 2013.

Counties with high levels of self-employed workers dominate the Great Plains and upper Mountain West

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Self-employed workers are individuals who work for themselves and have not incorporated their businesses. A higher proportion of nonmetropolitan workers are self-employed than metropolitan workers, according to a recent study by the USDA, Economic Research Service. ERS researchers used workforce data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census’ 2014–18 American Community Survey (ACS) to classify counties by the percentage of self-employed workers. Counties with a share of self-employed workers in the top 25 percent were considered to have a high level of self-employment. In these counties, 9.1 percent to 36.7 percent of workers were self-employed. High self-employment counties were primarily nonmetropolitan (702 counties versus 84 metropolitan counties). They were largely clustered throughout the Great Plains and upper Mountain West. This figure appears in the ERS publication Health Care Access Among Self-Employed Workers in Nonmetropolitan Counties, published May 2022.

Labor quality change, especially educational attainment, contributes positively to U.S. agricultural growth

Monday, April 18, 2022

Agricultural output in the United States nearly tripled between 1948 and 2017, with average annual output growth at 1.53 percent. While reduction of labor hours worked has contributed negatively, changes in labor quality have contributed positively to output growth over the years. Labor quality includes shifts in composition of demographic attributes, such as gender, age, educational attainment, employment type and other factors. ERS researchers group the study period into 12 sub-periods in accordance with U.S. economic business cycles (from peak to peak). Most of the contraction in total hours worked occurred between 1948 and 1969, during the expansionary period after World War II. By the 2007–17 economic business cycle, the decline in labor hours had its lowest negative effect on output growth, -0.16 percentage points. ERS researchers found that total labor quality had a positive effect on output growth in all economic business cycles except the 1979-81 period. The effects of labor quality on agricultural output growth were especially prominent before 1969. It accounted for nearly 25 percent of total output growth per year in the 1948–53, 1953–57, and 1960–66 subperiods, and 14 percent of annual output growth in the 1966-69 subperiod. Except for the period immediately after WWII, the major source of labor quality changes was an increase in educational attainment among farmworkers. On average, the increase in educational attainment accounted for more than 90 percent of the changes in labor quality between 1948 and 2017. Nevertheless, since 1969, the rise in educational attainment has slowed, and the overall influence of labor quality on output growth has diminished. This chart is drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service report “Farm Labor, Human Capital, and Agricultural Productivity in the United States,” published Feb. 15, 2022.

U.S. labor productivity per hours worked grew from 1948 to 2017 in part because of changes in quality of labor, study finds

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Agricultural output in the United States nearly tripled between 1948 and 2017 even as the amount of labor hours-worked declined by more than 80 percent. These opposing trends resulted in an increase in labor productivity growth in the U.S. farm sector. Labor productivity—calculated as average output per unit of labor input—is a popular measure for understanding economic growth. According to USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates, agricultural output per worker grew by 16 times from 1948 through 2017. At the same time, agricultural output per hour worked grew even faster, by 17 times, implying that average hours worked per worker declined. Labor productivity estimates can vary based on different ways labor is measured. One factor in the increased labor productivity is the quality of labor, measured by attributes such as age, gender, and the highest level of education a worker has reached. Because these attributes may affect worker performance, ERS researchers accounted for labor quality changes in analyzing farm labor productivity. When labor quality changes since 1948 were accounted for, labor productivity grew at a slower rate than those based simply on hours worked or employment. The reason is because labor quality is treated as a part of labor input instead of productivity. This implies that changes in labor quality, such as improvements in education, account for much of the change in labor productivity over the last seven decades. ERS researchers estimate that changes to farm worker attributes accounted for about 13 percent of growth in hourly based annual labor productivity during the time studied. This chart in included in the ERS report Farm Labor, Human Capital, and Agricultural Productivity in the United States, published Feb. 15, 2022.

Gap between H-2A positions certified and H-2A visas issued grew during COVID-19 pandemic

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers Program attracts foreign farmworkers on temporary work visas to fulfill short-term labor contracts. All positions to be filled with H-2A workers are first certified by the Department of Labor, then U.S. consulates issue corresponding visas. The number of positions certified each year generally exceeds the annual number of visas issued, in part because an H-2A worker may fill multiple positions on the same visa. At the onset of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, temporary changes to H-2A program rules provided visa extensions to H-2A workers already in the country and allowed them to more easily switch to certified positions with other employers. In the first few months of the pandemic, the gap between positions certified and the number of visas issued grew. Position certifications typically peak in March, while visas issued peak a month later as workers begin work. In March and April 2020 combined, a record 81,000 positions were certified, and 57,000 visas were issued during the corresponding months of April and May. This difference is larger than previous years and suggests that proportionally fewer certified positions were filled with new H-2A entries in 2020. This chart first appeared in the USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) report, Farm Labor Markets in the United States and Mexico Pose Challenges for U.S. Agriculture, published in November 2018, and has been updated through 2020. For more information on how H-2A visas have fulfilled seasonal labor requirements, see the ERS report Examining the Growth in Seasonal Agricultural H-2A Labor, published in August 2021, and the Amber Waves feature “Use of H-2A Guest Farm Worker Program More Than Triples in Past Decade,” published in September 2021.

H-2A certifications increased 225 percent between 2010 and 2019

Friday, September 10, 2021

H-2A is a Federal program that allows employers in the United States to bring in foreign workers on short-term labor contracts when farm operators cannot find enough domestic workers. Over the last decade, H-2A positions certified by the U.S. Department of Labor increased 225 percent—from 79,175 in 2010 to 257,674 in 2019. Each position certified was placed within one of the five product categories: animal products, field crops, fruit and tree nuts, greenhouse and nursery, and vegetables and melons. All categories experienced some growth in program use over the period, but growth was highest in the vegetables and melons and fruit and tree nuts categories. The number of H-2A positions certified in the vegetables and melons category increased from 20,584 in 2010 to 88,863 in 2019—an increase of 332 percent. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service report, Examining Growth in Seasonal H-2A Agricultural Labor, released August 2021.

Employment in U.S. agriculture grew 9 percent between 2010 and 2020

Friday, September 3, 2021

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW) show that wage and salary employment in agriculture was stable in the 2000s. Starting in 2010, it gradually increased from 1.07 million jobs to 1.17 million jobs in 2020—a gain of 9 percent. From 2010-20, growth was fastest in the livestock sub-sector, which added 41,300 jobs, an 18 percent increase, and in crop support services, which added 38,000 jobs, a 13 percent increase. Firms in the crop and livestock support sub-sectors provide specialized services to farmers including farm labor contracting, custom harvesting, and animal breeding services. By comparison, employment of direct hires in the crop sub-sector, which has the largest number of hired farm workers, remained essentially unchanged. Data from QCEW is based on unemployment insurance records, not on surveys of farms or households. As a result, it does not cover smaller farm employers in States that exempt such employers from participation in the unemployment insurance system. However, survey data from sources such as the American Community Survey and the Current Population Survey also showed rising farm employment since the turn of the century. This chart appears in the Economic Research Service topic page for Farm Labor, updated August 2021.

Average age of hired farm workforce increased from 2006 to 2019

Monday, June 14, 2021

With fewer young immigrants entering the U.S. farm workforce, the average age of foreign-born hired farmworkers rose in 2019. That, in turn, pulled up the average age for the U.S. farm workforce as a whole. According to the latest data from the American Community Survey, the average age of foreign-born farmworkers increased by nearly 7 years from 2006 to 2019, from 35.7 to 41.6 years. In contrast, the average age for farmworkers born in the United States remained roughly constant over the same period. The average age of all farmworkers increased from 35.8 years in 2006 to 39.5 years in 2019. U.S. farmworkers, who make up less than 1 percent of the Nation’s workforce, are more likely to be Hispanic of Mexican origin and less likely to be citizens than are workers in occupations other than agriculture, according to the American Community Survey. This chart updates data found in the October 2020 Amber Waves data feature, “U.S. Farm Employers Respond to Labor Market Changes With Higher Wages, Use of Visa Program, and More Women Workers.”

Largest shares of women principal farm operators found on poultry and other livestock operations in 2019

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Women play an integral part in farming, either as a principal operator or as a secondary operator. In 2019, more than half (51 percent) of all farming operations in the United States had a woman principal or at least one woman secondary operator. Women were primarily responsible for the day-to-day operation decisions—the “principal operator”—on 14 percent of farms. In 37 percent of operations, women were “secondary operators,” meaning they were involved in decisions for the operation but were not the principal operators. The share of principal farm operators who were women varied by commodity specializations. In 2019, the two largest shares of women principal operators were found on farms specializing in poultry (31 percent) and other livestock (about 30 percent). Operations specializing in dairy production had the largest share of operations with at least one woman secondary operator, about 54 percent. The smallest share (about 33 percent) of women operators, either principal or at least one secondary, was found on cotton farms. Among operations with at least one woman operator, 78 percent of the women were the principal operator’s spouse and worked on the farm. This chart is found in the Economic Research Service report, America’s Diverse Family Farms: 2020 Edition, released December 2020. It also appears in the June 2021 Amber Waves article, “Women Identified as Operators on 51 Percent of U.S. Farms in 2019.”

Women accounted for an increasing share of hired farm workforce from 2009 to 2018

Monday, March 8, 2021

From 2006 to 2009, the share of women in the hired farm workforce decreased slightly, but then climbed from 18.6 percent in 2009 to 25.5 percent in 2018. Hired farmworkers (which exclude self-employed farmers and their families) make up less than 1 percent of all U.S. wage and salary workers, but the overall number of hired farmworkers has remained relatively unchanged over this same period. Hired farmworkers often work in the production of fruits, vegetables, melons, dairy, and nursery and greenhouse crops. As can be seen from the rise in percentage from 2009 to 2018, in recent years, more women have taken on farm work. Overall, farm wages have risen over this period along with changes in the mix of capital and labor farms use during production. These changes may have resulted in a gradual shift in the share of women who comprise the hired farm labor force. This chart appears in the October 2020 Amber Waves data feature, “U.S. Farm Employers Respond to Labor Market Changes With Higher Wages, Use of Visa Program, and More Women Workers.

Real wages for hired U.S. farmworkers rose between 1990 and 2019

Friday, November 27, 2020

Hired farmworkers make up less than 1 percent of all U.S. wage and salary workers, but they play an essential role in labor-intensive industries within U.S. agriculture, such as the production of fruits, vegetables, melons, dairy, and nursery and greenhouse crops. Farm wages have risen over time for nonsupervisory crop and livestock workers (excluding contract labor). According to data from the USDA’s Farm Labor Survey, real (inflation-adjusted) wages rose at an average annual rate of 1.1 percent between 1990 and 2019. In the past 5 years, real farm wages grew even faster at an average annual rate of 2.8 percent. This is consistent with growers’ reports that the longstanding supply of workers from Mexico has decreased, as growers may respond over time by raising wages to attract workers from other sources. The gap between farm and nonfarm wages has slowly shrunk but is still substantial. In 1990, the average wage for nonsupervisory farmworkers—$9.80 an hour in 2019 dollars—was about half the $19.40 wage of private-sector nonsupervisory workers in the nonfarm economy. By 2019, the $13.99 farm wage was 60 percent of the $23.51 nonfarm wage. This chart appears in the October 2020 Amber Waves data feature, “U.S. Farm Employers Respond to Labor Market Changes With Higher Wages, Use of Visa Program, and More Women Workers.”

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.