Farm Labor

ERS provides information on a range of farm labor issues, including:

Finally, we provide links to key data sources with summaries.

Size and Composition of the U.S. Agricultural Workforce

The U.S. agricultural workforce has long consisted of a mixture of self-employed farm operators and their family members, and hired workers. Both types of employment have been in long-term decline, as rising agricultural productivity due to mechanization has reduced the need for labor. The reduction in self-employed and family labor has been more rapid than the decline in hired labor. According to data from the National Agricultural Statistical Service's (NASS) Farm Labor Survey (FLS), the number of self-employed and family farmworkers declined from 7.60 million in 1950 to 2.06 million in 2000, a 73-percent reduction. Over this period, average annual employment of hired farmworkers—including on-farm support personnel and those who work for farm labor contractors—declined from 2.33 million to 1.13 million, a 52-percent reduction. As a result, the proportion of hired workers has increased over time.

More recent estimates from USDA's Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) provide a breakdown of total farm labor hours (both paid and unpaid) by type of worker. Hired workers and contract laborers provide a growing share of agricultural labor in the United States—that share rose from 25.3 percent in 2003 to 41.0 percent in 2016. This in part reflects the increasing average size of farms, since larger farms use a higher proportion of hired labor.

The next section focuses on the employment, earnings, demographic characteristics, and other information for the hired farm labor force. (Information on the well-being of the self-employed farmers and their families may be found on the ERS topic page on Farm Household Well-being.) 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. In 2016, according to data from ARMS, hired farm wages and salaries represented roughly 14 percent of total cash expenses for all farms, and about 39 percent of expenses for farms specializing in labor-intensive fruit/vegetables and nursery production.

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. The majority are wage and salary workers, hired directly by farmers, but some are employees of agricultural service companies, including farm labor contractors, custom harvest providers, and management service providers. Many industrywide employment estimates will also include support personnel on farms, such as human resource managers, sales agents, truck drivers, etc.

Large numbers of hired farmworkers are Hispanic immigrants, and many lack authorization to work legally in the United States. In recent years, farmworkers have become more settled, with fewer migrating long distances from home to work, and fewer pursuing traditional seasonal "follow-the-crop" migration. The number of young, recent immigrants working in agriculture has also fallen, and as a result the farm workforce is aging. In recent years, real wages for hired farmworkers have risen faster than for the average nonsupervisory worker in a nonfarm occupation.

Hired farmworkers are employed in both metro (urban) and nonmetro (rural) areas. The statistics presented here refer to farmworkers nationwide, unless otherwise indicated.

Recent Trends in the Employment of Hired Farmworkers

Because the NASS Farm Labor Survey no longer tracks the employment of farm labor contract workers, we use other sources of data to monitor current employment trends. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), total wage and salary employment in crops, livestock, and related support activities, including all occupations in these industries, stood at 1,332,000 in 2000, then fell by about 12 percent, reaching a low of 1,175,000 in 2008, but has since rebounded to 1,344,000 in 2016, an increase of 14 percent over 2008 levels. According to this data source, recent growth in employment in support activities—which includes farm labor contract workers—has been somewhat more rapid than growth in employment of directly hired farmworkers.

Demographic Characteristics of Hired Crop/Livestock Farmworkers

Demographic information on farmworkers can be found in the American Community Survey (ACS) from the U.S. Census Bureau. These data also allow us to distinguish among manual laborers, managers/supervisors, and other occupations in the industry. Farm laborers are considerably less well educated, more likely to be Hispanic of Mexican origin, and less likely to be citizens than are workers in other occupations in agriculture, or than the U.S. wage and salary workforce as a whole.

Demographic characteristics of hired farmworkers and all wage and salary workers, 2016
Item Farm laborers, graders and sorters Farm managers, inspectors, and supervisors All other occupations in the industry Total: agriculture All U.S. wage and salary workers in private for-profit jobs
Percent female 23.7 16.6 31.4 24.6 45.2
Average age in years 38.3 43.7 42.5 40.0 40.1
Percent under age 25 19.3 8.7 12.4 16.2 16.0
Percent over age 44 33.3 47.5 45.1 38.0 38.9
Percent married 48.9 64.8 59.0 53.5 49.7
Percent White, not Hispanic 31.4 64.8 58.1 42.3 61.4
Percent Black, not Hispanic 2.5 1.9 3.5 2.7 11.4
Percent other, not Hispanic 2.3 3.3 3.2 2.6 8.6
Percent Hispanic: Mexican origin 57.8 27.4 31.0 47.3 11.7
Percent Hispanic: Other 6.0 2.6 4.2 5.1 7.0
Percent born in U.S. or Puerto Rico 43.2 73.3 70.5 53.8 80.6
Percent U.S. citizens 49.2 81.3 79.0 60.6 90.0
Percent lacking high school diploma 55.1 23.9 24.1 43.5 11.2
Percent with high school diploma (includes equivalency) 27.3 31.8 32.8 29.3 27.5
Percent with at least some college 17.5 44.3 43.1 27.3 61.4
Note: Counts all private sector wage and salary workers employed in the crop, livestock, and agricultural support industries.
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service analysis of data from U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2016.

Differences in demographics are also evident between crop and livestock workers. A larger share of workers in crops and related support industries are female (26 percent versus 20 percent in livestock). Crop workers are also less likely to be non-Hispanic whites (26 percent versus 59 percent for livestock), and less likely to be born in the United States (49 percent for all workers in crops and supports, and 36 percent for crop workers in manual labor occupations versus 69 percent for all livestock workers). Finally, crop workers are somewhat less well educated: 47 percent lack a high school degree, compared to 34 percent in livestock.

Notably, the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), discussed below, finds larger shares of foreign-born, Hispanic, and poorly educated employees among crop workers than does the ACS; (livestock workers are not surveyed in NAWS). For example, NAWS estimates that in FY2013-14 just 26 percent of crop farm workers in manual labor occupations were U.S.-born.

The Hired Farm Workforce Is Aging

As fewer young immigrants are entering agriculture, the average age of immigrant farmworkers is rising, pulling up the average for the workforce as a whole. The average age of immigrant farmworkers rose from 37.3 to 41.6 years between 2011 and 2017, while the average for all farmworkers rose from 37.4 to 38.8 years.

Women Are an Increasing Share of the Hired Farm Workforce

The share of farmworkers who are women declined in 2007-09, from 18.7 percent to 17.6 percent, but has since climbed to 25.0 percent (in 2017). The fact that the female share fell during the Great Recession and has risen during the recovery is consistent with men moving into agriculture as employment in the nonfarm economy declines, and out of agriculture as nonfarm job prospects improve. The rising female share is also consistent with the fact that, as labor costs rise, some growers are adopting mechanical aids (such as hydraulic platforms that replace ladders in tree-fruit harvesting, and mobile conveyor belts that reduce the distance heavy loads must be carried) which permit women and older workers to perform tasks that were traditionally performed largely by younger men.

Geographic Distribution of Hired Farmworkers (All Occupations)

Despite agriculture's rural nature, 61 percent of hired farmworkers reside in metro (urban) counties. This largely reflects the fact that most of the main farming areas in California, Arizona, and other Western States lie in large counties that also include major cities, and are hence defined as metropolitan. But significant numbers of farmworkers are also found in metro counties in the Great Lakes and in the South Atlantic.

Wages of Hired Farmworkers

According to data from the Farm Labor Survey (FLS), real (inflation-adjusted) wages for the Nation’s directly hired farmworkers (counting all occupations, but excluding contract labor) have risen by just under 1-percent per year since 1989, reaching an annual average of $13.32 per hour in 2017. Real wages grew at 3.7 percent in 2015 and 2.2 percent 2016, but the real farm wage growth rate fell to 0.5 percent in 2017, due both to a slowdown in nominal wage growth and an uptick in inflation.

Wages of nonsupervisory crop and livestock workers averaged $12.47 per hour in 2017, with little difference between crop and livestock wage rates. Real wage growth for these nonsupervisory farmworkers has been faster than for nonsupervisory production workers in the general nonfarm economy. In 1989, the average real farm wage for nonsupervisory crop and livestock workers ($9.61 per hour, in 2017 dollars) was 49 percent less than the average private-sector nonfarm nonsupervisory wage ($18.71). By 2017, this gap had been reduced to 43 percent ($12.47 for nonsupervisory farmworkers, and $22.05 for nonsupervisory nonfarm workers).

In recent years the FLS has included a detailed breakdown of farm wages by occupation, which is not available from other sources. Average hourly wages for hired agricultural managers stood at $22.68 in 2017, up 3.4 percent from the year before (not adjusted for inflation). Supervisors made $20.10 per hour, up 2.6 percent. The wages of support personnel in nonagricultural occupations (office workers, sales representatives, etc.) averaged $18.24 per hour in 2017, up 2.1 percent from the year before.

Average wages by occupation, 2017
Occupation SOC code Employment share 2017 (percent) Average hourly wage 2017 Nominal wage growth, 2016-17 (percent change)
Graders and sorters, agricultural products (45-2041) 2 $12.27 5.9
Agricultural equipment operators (45-2091) 18 $12.86 0.9
Farmworkers, crop, nursery, and greenhouse (45-2092) 42 $12.43 2.6
Farmworkers, farm, ranch, and aquacultural (45-2093) 23 $12.30 2.2
Agricultural workers, all other (45-2099) 2 $13.39 -0.9
Packers and packagers, hand (53-7064) 2 $11.38 3.5
  Subtotal, nonsupervisory farmworkers   89 $12.47 2.2
Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers (11-9013) 3 $22.68 3.4
First-line supervisors (45-1011) 3 $20.10 2.6
  Subtotal, supervisory and nonsupervisory occupations   94 $13.03 2.6
All other farm occupations   6 $18.24 2.1
All farm occupations   100 $13.32 2.6
Note: SOC = Standard Occupational Classification (SOC).
Source: USDA, Economic Research Service using data from USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Farm Labor Survey. As of 2012, the survey no longer counts contracted agricultural service workers.

Labor Cost Share of Total Gross Revenues

Although farm wages are rising in nominal and real terms, these rising costs have been offset by rising productivity and/or output prices. As a result, labor costs as a share of gross revenues do not show an upward trend since the turn of the century. For all farms, labor costs (including contract labor, and fringe benefit costs) averaged 10.1 percent of gross cash income in 2016, compared to 10.6-12.6 percent for 2000-02. For the more labor-intensive fruit, vegetable, and horticulture operations, the 2016 labor cost share was 26.7 percent, compared to 28.6-30.3 percent for 2000-02. For farms specializing in dairy, which also relies to a large extent on immigrant labor, the labor cost share was 10.2 percent in 2016, compared to 7.9-9.8 percent for 2000-02.

H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program

The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program provides a legal means to bring foreign-born workers to the United States to perform seasonal farm labor on a temporary basis, for a period of up to 10 months. Crop farmers can use this program to meet their seasonal labor needs, but most livestock producers, such as ranches, dairies, and hog and poultry operations, are not able to use the program to meet their year-round labor needs. An exception is made for producers of livestock on the range, such as sheep and goat operations, who can use H-2A workers year-round.

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, which may not be lower than the average wage for crop and livestock workers surveyed by NASS in that region in the prior year, known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR). In addition, employers must 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 13 years, from just over 48,000 positions certified in fiscal 2005 to nearly 243,000 in fiscal 2018. The average duration of an H-2A certification in fiscal 2018 was 5.3 months, implying that the 243,000 positions certified represented approximately 108,000 full-year equivalents, or about 8 percent of total wage and salary employment on farms and in related support industries, which the Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated at 1.3 million (in calendar year 2017).

Adverse Effect Wage Rate

H-2A employers must provide transportation and housing and pay the higher of the applicable State or federal minimum wage, the prevailing wage in that region and occupation, as determined by the U.S. Department of Labor, or the regional average wage observed in FLS. The latter is known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, reflecting the legal requirement that H-2A employment should not negatively affect domestic farmworkers by lowering the average wage. For fiscal 2018, this hourly wage rate ranged from $10.73 (in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana) to $13.64 per hour (in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas).

Legal Status and Migration Practices of Hired Crop Farmworkers

The National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), conducted by the Department of Labor, is the only survey that ascertains the legal immigration status of noncitizen farmworkers, and the only survey that identifies hired farmworkers as migrant or settled. However, NAWS excludes the growing number of H-2A workers, as well as all hired livestock farmworkers. 

Roughly Half of Hired Crop Farmworkers Lack Legal Immigration Status

The share of hired crop farmworkers who were not legally authorized to work in the United States grew from roughly 14 percent in 1989-91 to almost 55 percent in 1999-2001. Since then it has fluctuated around 50 percent. In 2012-14, 47 percent of crop farmworkers were unauthorized, 32 percent were U.S. natives, and 21 percent were authorized immigrants (both citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents, or green-card holders).

More Farmworkers Are Settled, Fewer Are Migrants

More than 80 percent of hired crop farmworkers are not migrant workers, 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, reflecting a profound change in the nature of the crop farm workforce.

Among the small share of remaining 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 11 percent of hired crop farmworkers in 2012-14, down from about 24 percent in 1996-98.

More common in the past, the "follow the crop" migrant farmworker, who moves from State to State working on different crops as the seasons advance, is now a relative rarity. These workers made up just 4 percent of those surveyed by the NAWS in 2012-14, 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. The fact that they represent just 2 percent of the crop farm workforce, down from as much as 23 percent in 1998-2000, reflects the dramatic slowdown in net immigration from Mexico to the United States since 2007.

Links to Key Data Sources

From the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

  • Farm Labor Survey
    The National Agricultural Statistics Service's (NASS) Farm Labor Survey is based on semi-annual phone interviews with a random sample of farm employers (crops and livestock), who are asked to provide quarterly data on their wage bill, employment counts, and average weekly hours for all hired workers, by occupation. Contract labor is excluded. No demographic information on the workforce is collected. Each year, the survey’s estimate of the annual average wage for nonsupervisory field and livestock workers in each of 17 regions is used as the basis for the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, which sets a minimum wage for H-2A workers in the following year. The survey is described here, and its quarterly reports are archived here. Results can also be obtained via NASS Quickstats.
  • Census of Agriculture
    Every 5 years (years ending in 2 or 7), NASS conducts a full census of every farm in the country. Published results include national, State, and county-level tables on myriad topics, including land use and ownership, operator characteristics, production practices, income, and expenditures. Information on total employment (a simple head count, not adjusted for full-year or full-time equivalency) and labor expenditures (including contract labor) is also available. Again, almost no demographic information on the hired farm work force is collected. The Census is described here. Published tables from the 2012 Census are here. Results can also be obtained via NASS Quickstats
  • Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS)
    ARMS, jointly sponsored by ERS and NASS, is an annual survey of roughly 30,000 farms that serves as the primary source of information on the financial condition, production practices, and resource use of America's farm businesses and the economic well-being of America's farm households. The field-level phase collects information on production practices and costs (fertilizer, pesticide, labor, tillage, seed, etc.) for target commodities. The farm-level phase collects financial information for farm businesses and a variety of financial and demographic information (age, education, occupation, off-farm income, etc.) for farm operators and their households. The survey collects information from 48 States and is designed to represent the continental United States and to support State-level estimates for 15 key agricultural States. An online web tool permits the creation of various customized reports on farm structure and finance, and crop production practices

From other agencies:

  • National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS)
    NAWS is an employment-based, random-sample survey of U.S. crop workers (livestock workers are not covered, nor are seasonal workers on H-2A visas) that collects demographic, employment, and health data in face-to-face interviews. The NAWS is the source of estimates of legal immigration status of the Nation’s crop farmworkers, and is the basis for much of the research on farmworker health and well-being. Results are tabulated here, and the underlying microdata files are also available for public use.
  • Current Population Survey (CPS)
    The Census Bureau's CPS interviews about 60,000 households each month, asking detailed questions about demographic characteristics and labor market outcomes. It is the source of the official estimates of the unemployment rate, which are released on the first Friday of every month. Note that this release also contains information on employment levels, derived from a different survey, called the Current Employment Statistics survey, which interviews employers. CPS also serves as the basis for much of the published research on the U.S. labor market. CPS’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement, conducted each March, is the source of official statistics on poverty and income distribution. Farmworkers may be identified using industry and occupation codes in the CPS Public Use Microdata (PUMS) files. Results are available at the State level, and for larger metro areas. Results are not generally tabulated for metro versus nonmetro areas, but such tabulations are possible using the microdata files.
  • American Community Survey (ACS)
    ACS is a rolling monthly survey that interviews more than two million households annually, collecting basic demographic, labor market, and income data. Results are released annually for the nation, for States (with separate tallies for their metropolitan and nonmetropolitan components), and for large metro areas. Information on smaller geographic areas is released only for 5-year averages. Although the income questionnaire is less detailed than CPS, its larger sample size makes the ACS a more reliable measure of income and basic labor market outcomes for smaller geographic regions. Results are accessible using American Fact Finder. Farmworkers may be identified using industry and occupation codes in the ACS Public Use Microdata (PUMS) files.
  • Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA)
    BEA synthesizes data from multiple sources to provide annual industry employment and earnings estimates at the national, State and county levels. Information on the number of farm proprietors, hired farmworkers, and both self-employed and hired workers in agricultural support services, and their earnings, is reported.
  • Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW)
    The QCEW provides monthly estimates of employment and earnings for all industries, but is limited to employers who are mandated to contribute to State unemployment insurance funds. This excludes many smaller farm employers in States that do not have universal unemployment insurance coverage. The QCEW classifies farm employers by their primary product, and then reports employment and earnings for all occupations employed in that industry, at the national, State, and county levels. Some results are suppressed at lower levels of geography and finer industry detail to protect respondent anonymity.

Last updated: Monday, September 23, 2019

For more information contact: Marcelo Castillo