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 two groups of workers: (1) self-employed farm operators and their family members, and (2) hired workers. Both types of employment were in long-term decline from 1950 to 1990, as mechanization contributed to rising agricultural productivity, reducing the need for labor. Since 1990, employment levels have stabilized.

The reduction in self-employed and family labor through 1990 was more rapid than the decline in hired labor. According to data from the Farm Labor Survey (FLS) of USDA's National Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS), the number of self-employed and family farmworkers declined from 7.60 million in 1950 to 2.01 million in 1990, a 74-percent reduction. Over this same 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 1.15 million, a 51-percent reduction. As a result, the proportion of hired workers has increased over time.

The rest of this page describes the employment, earnings, demographic characteristics, and other information for the hired farm labor force only. (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. According to data from the 2017 Census of Agriculture, wages and salaries plus contract labor costs represented just 12 percent of production expenses for all farms, but 43 percent for greenhouse and nursery operations and 39 percent for fruit and tree nut operations.

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 also include support personnel on farms, such as human resource managers, sales agents, and truck drivers.

Many hired farmworkers are foreign-born people from Mexico and Central America, with many lacking authorization to work legally in the United States. In recent years, farmworkers have become more settled, fewer migrating long distances from home to work, and fewer pursuing 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. Over the past 30 years, wages for hired farmworkers have gradually risen, both in real terms and in relation to wages for the average nonsupervisory worker in a nonfarm occupation.

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

Recent Trends in the Employment of Hired Farmworkers

According to data from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW), wage and salary employment in agriculture (measured as the annual average number of full- and part-time jobs)—including support industries such as farm labor contracting—stabilized in the 2000s and has been on a gradual upward trend since 2010, rising from 1.07 million in 2010 to 1.16 million in 2020, a gain of 9 percent.

From 2010-20, growth was highest in the livestock sector (which added 41,300 jobs, an 18-percent increase) and crop support services (which added 38,000 jobs, a 13-percent increase). It should be noted that the 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 those States that exempt such employers from participation in the unemployment insurance system. However, survey data sources, such as the American Community Survey and the Current Population Survey, also find rising farm employment since the turn of the century.

Demographic Characteristics of Hired Farmworkers

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

Demographic characteristics of U.S. hired farmworkers and all wage and salary workers, 2019
Item Farm laborers, graders and sorters Farm managers, inspectors, and supervisors All other occupations in agriculture Agriculture: All occupations All U.S. private wage and salary workers
Percent female 26 13 36 27 45
Average age in years 39 44 42 41 40
  Percent under age 25 20 10 17 18 18
  Percent over age 44 37 50 47 41 41
Percent married 48 62 54 51 48
Race/Ethnicity/Ancestry
  Percent White, not Hispanic 31 67 61 44 59
  Percent Black, not Hispanic 3 2 3 3 12
  Percent other, not Hispanic 2 3 4 3 9
  Percent Hispanic: Mexican origin 57 24 26 44 12
  Percent Hispanic: Other 7 4 6 6 8
Percent born in U.S. (includes Puerto Rico) 44 75 76 57 80
Percent U.S. citizens 53 84 84 66 90
Education
  Percent lacking high school diploma 48 19 20 36 9
  Percent with high school diploma (includes equivalency) 32 31 31 31 29
  Percent with at least some college 21 50 49 32 62
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. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, American Community Survey, 2019.

Differences in demographics are also evident between crop and livestock workers (not shown in table). A larger share of laborers in crops and related support industries are female (28 percent versus 22 percent in livestock). Crop laborers are also less likely to be non-Hispanic White (24 percent versus 50 percent for livestock), and less likely to have been born in the United States (37 percent for crop workers in manual labor occupations versus 61 percent for manual livestock workers). Finally, crop laborers have lower levels of educational attainment: 53 percent lack a high school degree, compared with 34 percent in livestock.

Notably, the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), discussed below, finds larger shares of foreign-born, Hispanic, and less educated employees among crop and support workers than does the ACS (livestock workers are not surveyed in NAWS). For example, NAWS estimates that in Fiscal Years 2015–16, just 25 percent of crop farm workers in manual labor occupations were U.S. born, compared with 37 percent in the ACS.

The Hired Farm Workforce Is Aging

As fewer young immigrants are entering agriculture, the average age of foreign-born farmworkers has risen, pulling up the average for the farm workforce as a whole. The average age of immigrant farmworkers rose by 6 years between 2006 and 2019. In contrast, the average age for U.S.-born farmworkers has remained roughly constant over this period.

Women Are an Increasing Share of the Hired Farm Workforce

The share of farmworkers who are women declined in 2006–09, from 20.3 percent to 18.6 percent, but has since climbed to 26.1 percent (in 2019). 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 facilitate more women and older workers in  performing tasks that  traditionally have been performed by younger men.

Geographic Distribution of Hired Farmworkers (By Place of Residence)

According to the 2019 American Community Survey, sixty nine percent of hired farmworkers reside in counties that are defined as metro (urban). 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 thus are defined as metropolitan. Significant numbers of farmworkers are also found in metro counties in the Great Lakes States (East North Central division) and in the South Atlantic.

Wages of Hired Farmworkers

According to data from the FLS, real (inflation-adjusted) wages for nonsupervisory crop and livestock workers (excluding contract labor) rose at an average annual rate of 1.1 percent per year between 1990 and 2020. In the past 5 years, however, real farm wages grew at 2.9 percent per year, consistent with growers' reports that workers were harder than usual to find.

In 1990, the average real farm wage for nonsupervisory crop and livestock workers was just over half the average real wage in the nonfarm economy for private-sector nonsupervisory occupations ($10.20 versus $20.19). By 2020, the farm wage ($14.62) was equal to 59 percent of the nonfarm wage ($24.68). In other words, the gap between farm and nonfarm wages is slowly shrinking, but still substantial.

Wages for nonsupervisory occupations varied little across occupations, ranging from $14.09 (for graders and sorters) to $15.36 (for equipment operators). For four out the six nonsupervisory occupations, however, wages were more than 4 percent higher in 2020 than in 2019 (not adjusted for inflation).

Average hourly wages for hired agricultural managers stood at $25.58 in 2020, up 3.5 percent from the year before. Supervisors averaged $22.48 per hour, up 5.2 percent.

Average wages by occupation, 2020
Occupation SOC code Employment share 2020 (percent) Average hourly wage 2020 Nominal wage growth, 2019-20 (percent change)
Graders and sorters, agricultural products (45-2041) 2 14.09 7.3
Agricultural equipment operators (45-2091) 16 15.36 5.3
Farmworkers, crop, nursery, and greenhouse (45-2092) 42 14.58 4.3
Farmworkers, farm, ranch, and aquacultural (45-2093) 23 14.28 5.0
Agricultural workers, all other (45-2099) 2 14.14 -0.1
Packers and packagers, hand (53-7064) 2 14.38 2.2
Subtotal, nonsupervisory farmworkers   87 14.64 4.7
Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers (11-9013) 3 25.58 3.5
First-line supervisors (45-1011) 3 22.48 5.2
Subtotal, supervisory and nonsupervisory occupations   94 15.25 4.5
All other farm occupations   6 19.29 -1.7
All farm occupations   100 15.48 3.9
Note: SOC = Standard Occupational Classification (SOC). Components may not sum to 100 percent because of independent rounding.
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, the impact of these rising costs on farmers' incomes has been offset by rising productivity and/or output prices. As a result, labor costs as a share of gross cash income do not show an upward trend for the industry as a whole over the past 20 years. For all farms, labor costs (including contract labor, and cash fringe benefit costs) averaged 10.4 percent of gross cash income during 2017-19, compared with 10.7 percent for 1996-98.

However, these trends in labor cost shares differ by commodity. Labor cost shares have fallen slightly over the past 20 years for the more labor-intensive fruit and vegetable sectors, although they appear to have been trending upwards again in the past few years. On dairies and in nursery operations, both of which also rely heavily on immigrant labor, labor costs as a share of income are at or near their 20-year highs.

H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program

The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program—often called the H-2A visa 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 legally allowed to use the program to meet year-round labor needs. An exception to this restriction is made for producers of livestock on the range, such as sheep and goat operations, who can use H-2A workers year-round.

Employers in the H-2A program 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 in the FLS in that region in the prior year, known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR). (See the next section for details on the 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 more than fivefold in the past 15 years, from just over 48,000 positions certified in fiscal 2005 to just over 275,000 in fiscal year 2020. The average duration of an H-2A certification in fiscal 2020 was 5.6 months, implying that the 275,000 positions certified represented approximately 127,000 full-year equivalents.

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 farm wage observed in the NASS FLS. The latter is known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), reflecting the legal requirement that H-2A employment should not negatively affect domestic farmworkers by lowering the average wage. For fiscal 2021, this minimum hourly wage ranged from $11.81 (in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina) to $16.34 (in Oregon and Washington).

Legal Status and Migration Practices of Hired Crop Farmworkers

Legal immigration status is difficult to measure: not many surveys ask the question, and unauthorized respondents may be reluctant to answer truthfully if asked. The U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) provides data on farmworkers' legal immigration status. NAWS data, believed to be of high quality, is gathered by trained and trusted enumerators who conduct face-to-face interviews with workers at their job sites and with their employers’ permission. NAWS also queries workers on their inter- and intranational migration patterns. One limitation of the NAWS, however, is that it excludes the growing number of H-2A workers, as well as all hired livestock workers.

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; in recent years it has been just under 50 percent. In 2014-16, 27 percent of crop farmworkers were U.S. born, 4 percent were immigrants who had obtained U.S. citizenship, 21 percent were other authorized immigrants (primarily permanent residents or green-card holders), and the remaining 48 percent held no work authorization. The share of workers who are U.S. born is highest in the Midwest, while the share who are unauthorized is highest in California.

More Farmworkers Are Settled, Fewer Are Migrants

More than 80 percent of hired crop farmworkers are not migrant workers but are considered settled, meaning that they work at a single location within 75 miles of their home. This share is up from 41 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 is "shuttlers," who work at a single farm location more than 75 miles from home and may cross an international border to get to their worksite. Shuttlers made up about 10 percent of hired crop farmworkers in 2014-16, 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 5 percent of those surveyed by the NAWS in 2014-16, down from a high of 14 percent in 1992-94.

The final category of hired crop farmworkers is newcomers to farming, whose migration patterns have not yet been established. The fact that they now represent just 3 percent of the crop farm workforce, down from as much as 22 percent in 1998-2000, in part reflecting the slowdown in net migration from Mexico to the United States since 2007.

Links to Key Data Sources

From the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

  • Farm Labor Survey
    The Farm Labor Survey (FLS) conducted by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) 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, and no demographic information on the workforce is collected. Each year, the FLS'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 (AEWR), 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. Data and statistics can also be obtained via NASS Quickstats.​
  • Census of Agriculture
    Every 5 years (years ending in 2 and 7), NASS conducts a full census of every farm in the country. Published statistics include national-, State-, and county-level tables on many 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 2017 Census are here. Data 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, conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor, is an employment-based, random-sample survey of U.S. crop workers (neither livestock workers nor seasonal workers on H-2A visas are covered) 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. 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, although for a small number of households, metro status is not reported.
  • American Community Survey (ACS)
    The ACS is a rolling monthly survey that interviews more than 2 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 nationalState 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. Note that BEA's data on self-employment (employment of proprietors) are not comparable to other sources of data on self-employment, because they are not limited to those for whom self-employment is the primary activity.
  • 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 some 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.