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July 2004, Volume 10, Number 3


Dynamics of Hired Farm Labor

This four-part, 18-chapter book includes papers presented at a conference in October 1999. The papers, written by economists, sociologists and anthropologists, cover trends in the farm work force, topics related to farm employers, workers, and communities, and farm worker health and safety. The concluding chapter reviews farm worker data.

Co-editor Findeis opens the book with a summary of trends in farm employment in OECD member countries, emphasizing: (1) that the number of persons employed in agriculture and hours worked have decreased; (2) the percentage of farm work done by hired or wage and salary workers has increased; and (3) more farm residents are doing more off-farm work. Findeis estimated that hired workers accounted for 61 percent of agricultural employment in Canada in 1996-97, 55 percent in the US, and 32 percent in the EU (p6). Using CPS data, co-editor Runyan estimated that hired workers were 25 percent of US agricultural employment in the 1950s and 35 percent in the 1990s.

Findeis distinguishes year-round, seasonal, and casual labor (part-time or very seasonal workers), and emphasizes that the number and characteristics of workers who arrive from outside the community affects their impacts. For example, an influx of Mexican apple pickers to a remote area of Washington can double and change the Hispanic share of the area's population.

Findeis emphasizes that policy makes a difference in the farm labor market, and contrasts two policies: (1) helping farm workers with lower than average wages to get out of farm work sooner, thus reducing rural poverty, compared to; (2) not allowing immigrants or others to become farm workers so there is not a group of poor farm workers to move into higher-wage nonfarm jobs. Presumably, if guest workers could be rotated through farm jobs, there would be no need to help them to achieve upward mobility, since they would return to their countries of origin. Similarly, if there were no new entrants to the farm work force, farm worker wages would rise, and mechanization, a restructuring of work, and increased imports of labor-intensive commodities would follow.

Jack Runyan (Amber Waves, Fall 2002) used CPS data to report that the West (44 percent) and South (31 percent) accounted for almost 75 percent of US hired farm workers. In 2001, over 80 percent of hired farmworkers were male (compared to 50 percent of US wage and salary workers), nearly 46 percent were Hispanic, and nearly 75 percent were less than 45 years old. Over half of the hired farm workers had not finished 12 years of school, and over a third were not U.S. citizens. Median weekly earnings were $345 in 2001. USDA and CPS data suggest that about 2.5 million individuals are hired to fill an average 1.3 million year-round equivalent jobs on US farms.

Several contributors used an alternative data source, the National Agricultural Workers Survey, to paint a picture of a more Hispanic and immigrant labor force. The NAWS uses an employment rather than a housing sampling frame to select workers to be interviewed, and the NAWS emphasizes that a quarter of US hired workers are recently arrived young men- most typical is a 22-year old unauthorized worker who has been in the US less than two years. These solo male newcomers largely determine wages and working conditions for all farm workers, and their continued arrival means that experienced workers with nonfarm job options exit rather than fight for change in the farm labor market. As a result, according to Mines, agriculture gets trapped in a low-productivity equilibrium that requires a constant infusion of new arrivals.

Many farm workers have families in Mexico, and a major question is whether these workers will have their families join them in the US even if they and their families are unauthorized. Many are apparently settling in the US, and an analysis of US farm worker health insurance coverage based on the March supplement to the CPS between 1995 and 1999 found that 62 percent of 7,024 hired workers had health insurance, although it is not clear whether the insurance was provided by their farm employer. In these data, 34 percent of the workers were Hispanic, 37 percent were in the western region, and 33 percent were in the south. About 40 percent of the workers in the four-year sample had not completed high school.

The book includes case studies of farm labor in southwestern Florida citrus and tomatoes, Hispanic workers on New York dairies, and Washington, whose farms employ an annual average 86,000 workers, including 34,000 to harvest apples in September. Most of the hired workers in Washington are young Hispanic males, and Thilmany concludes that farm employers could, if they wished, make management decisions to "curtail any further increase in the demand for labor." (p90). Other studies focus on the impacts of farm workers on communities in southwestern Michigan and Central Kentucky, where an agribusiness's introduction of Mexican workers in 1987 prompted a backlash against "outsiders" changing the community.

Findeis, J. L., A. Vandeman, J.Larson, and J. Runyan. Eds. 2002. The Dynamics of Hired Farm Labor. Constraints and Community Responses. New York. CABI Publishing. (See also RMN, January 2000 Volume 6 Number 1). Martin, Philip, Wallace Huffman, Robert Emerson, J. Edward Taylor, and Refugio Rochin. 1995. Immigration Reform and US Agriculture. Berkeley: Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Publication 3358. Majika, Linda, and Theo Majika. 1982. Farmworkers, Agribusiness, and the State. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Taylor, Ronald B 1975. Chavez and the Farmworkers, Boston: Beacon Press.