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Thilmany - Agricultural Workers and Immigration Issues in the Mountain West

Agricultural Workers and Immigration Issues in the Mountain West

Dawn Thilmany, Colorado State University

June 2006

Presented at the Immigration and Agriculture Conference
Washington DC

Dawn Thilmany is an Associate Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Colorado State University and Interim National Program Leader for Organics at USDA-CSREES.

Agricultural Workers and Immigration Issues in the Mountain West


The relative growth in employment and the Hispanic population were greater than overall population growth in the Mountain West, but growth in employment, farm employment and the number of farm workers has leveled off or dropped since the beginning of the 2000’s. Given the current immigration debate, it is an interesting time to examine labor market and population trends for farm and farm-related industries, in order to examine how the market is reacting to current uncertainty regarding the supply of farmworkers, especially in the West where the drought and proximity to the border may exacerbate any controversy.

Rural areas of the Mountain West are different from other rural areas of the United States for many reasons, including the importance of public lands, the scarcity and uncertainty surrounding water supplies and the relatively high importance of livestock systems, and to a lesser degree, fruit and vegetable production, relative to the field crops found in other regions. In the agricultural sector, growth in farm production and related employment exceeds the national average across almost every state in the region. The growth in farm-related employment may be due to a variety of factors including the increase in demand for fresh fruits and vegetables that are well-suited to production in Western climates, relocation of food industries following the increased consumer population in the West, or the less stringent regulations and planning barriers for concentrated livestock enterprises in less populated rural areas. Regardless of the reason for increased agricultural employment, there continues to be anecdotal evidence relating farm and farm-related jobs to growth in the Hispanic population of a place. But, there is little firm evidence. Despite the reasons, growth in the illegal immigrant sector of the population has presented challenges to some communities, but these challenges may be mitigated by policy initiatives under debate.
A USA TODAY breakdown of public opinion, based on Gallup polls taken in April and May, finds Americans falling into four clusters that are roughly equal in size but vary dramatically in point of view. The groups can be characterized as "hard-liners," "unconcerned," "ambivalent" and "welcoming." They found that traditional partisanship doesn't drive views on immigration. Gender, education and family history seem to do as much to shape attitudes as political party or ideology. Significant numbers of liberals and conservatives are divided among three of the four groups. Moderates spread across all four. The four groups are starkly at odds on basic issues, making it difficult to see common ground. No one in the "hard-liner" group supports a proposal to allow illegal immigrants to work toward citizenship, but more than three-fourths of those in the other three groups do. The Senate bill includes such a provision; the House bill doesn't. In two of the four groups, overwhelming majorities say removing illegal immigrants would hurt the economy. In the other two groups, solid majorities say it would help. Yet, the connection between Hispanic settlement and employment growth, as well as the interdependence between undocumented residents with current workers in “immigrant magnet” industries is not well studied or understood.
The most recent Census population and Hispanic demographic estimates for Mountain West states, in addition to worker information from several industries that are important entry, and long-term, employers for recent immigrants, is explored in this paper. These data are used to describe the population, employment and agricultural-related employment dynamics of the Mountain West. Understanding the general trends and interdependence between Hispanic growth and agricultural workers may suggest the relative importance and potential positive outcomes of the proposed policy changes on farm managers and Mountain West communities.

General Trends for the Mountain West
For the purposes of this paper, the Mountain West is defined as the Central and Northwest states of the Western region, minus California. These states include Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Washington and Oregon were included in the region because the agricultural workforces of those states may play an important role in the Intermountain migrant stream, and because some of the characteristics of those two states (high population and employment growth) are similar with other states in the region (Thilmany and Miller).

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics and USDA-ERS

It should be noted that the list of states included in this analysis is very closely aligned with those states with the highest population growth rates in the country between 1990 and 2000; Colorado (#3), Idaho (#5), Montana (#20), Nevada (#1), Oregon (#11), Utah (#4), Washington (#10). Wyoming is the region’s only state that had below average growth (ranking #32 in terms of population growth).
Figure 1 shows the total population and Hispanic population growth rates for the period of 2000 to 2004, based on U.S. Census estimates. Although population growth remained relatively high in this region, it slowed markedly from the late 1990’s, partly due to a significant slowing in employment growth (Figure 2). Still, every state in the region has at LEAST average employment growth relative to the US (Table 2). This is not the case for farm employment, where several states have little to no growth (or loss) in farm positions, a trend that will be discussed further in subsequent sections.
Nevada led the region in the growth in employment (total and farm) as well as population and Hispanc population growth. This continues what was seen between 1990 and 2000: when Nevada saw the highest employment and Hispanic population increases, alongside its 67% population growth, while Wyoming lagged behind the rest of the region in each of the same categories. Wyoming continues to lag in terms of Hispanic settlement and farm employment, but its general employment growth now outpaces the US and many of the other states in the region.
Table 1 shows that, not only is the growth in Hispanic population relatively high in this region, but that it outpaces total population growth by a factor of at two to four times total population growth, but it also varies significantly across the region’s states.
Figure 3 also shows that the absolute Hispanic population share in 2000 is now higher in many areas of the Mountain West region than the rest of the U.S., while there are some areas (mostly in the North Central area of the region) that still report a small share of Hispanics.
There is some evidence that Hispanic population growth mirrors employment growth across states, but the growth in Hispanics appears to be far greater than the other graphed indicators. In subsequent sections of this paper, the relationship between Hispanic population growth and farm-related employment will be explored to determine whether the farm sector of the economy may be one of the drivers of Hispanic growth, and thus, whether any new employment program for immigrants will influence farm managers and communities in the region.

Figure 3-Hispanic Population share in the U.S., by county

The Agricultural Workforce
Forbes reports that, growers facing a dwindling supply of farmworkers are pressing lawmakers in hopes of influencing the outcome of immigration reform measures before Congress Their efforts come as the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a report last week that showed there are 4 percent fewer workers on American farms now than at this time last year. And last year's farm work force in the spring was already 10 percent smaller than the year before. "We're for cracking down on the hiring of illegal immigrants and for homeland security," said Austin Perez, policy director for the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. farm group. "But if it doesn't have a guest worker program, and doesn't allow farmers to maintain a work force ... we'd be looking at a huge production loss."
Workers on farms are grouped in three categories by the USDA; self employed, unpaid and hired workers. For this study, we are primarily focused on hired workers since they are most likely to be nonfamily and new to communities. U.S. farms directly hired 718,000 workers in 2006, down 4.6% from 2005’s level (753,000) and down more than 10% from 2002’s levels. Between 2005 and 2006, hired workers’ average hourly wage increased from $9.35 to $9.79, while the average hours worked increased slightly from 39.9 to 40.8 per week, suggesting stronger demand but some potential for a shortage of workers.

Source: USDA-ERS, Mountain 1: Idaho, Montana and Wyoming; Mountain II: Colorado, Nevada, Utah; Mountain III: New Mexico, Arizona

Some trends for the Mountain West differed from U.S. averages (Figure 4). The states included in this study make up USDA’s Mountain I (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming), Mountain II (Colorado, Nevada and Utah) regions for farm labor classifications. All regions saw a decreasing number of workers, but the hours worked were up significantly in the Mountain II region, and so were wages, indicating either a shortage of workers or significantly increased labor demand. The Mountain III region, not considered as much in this paper, had similar trends in hours, but not wages.
Following USDA Economic Research Service cost of production data, where the U.S. is divided into bigger regions, we can focus on the Mountain (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and Pacific (California, Oregon and Washington) regions. For the U.S., the share of production expenses connected with hired labor was 11.2% in 2002, up from 10.0% in 1997 and up from 9.5% in 1993, a 17.9% increase over the decade. For the Mountain region, the share of production costs associated with labor in 2002 were 12.0% of total production expenditures, a 29% increase from being 9.3% of production expenses in 1993. In the Pacific region, 2002 expenditures were 26.6% of production expenses, a 23.7% increase from 1993 (compared to 21.5% in 1993 and 25.6% in 2000). In both cases, the growth rates of relative labor usage were greater than the national average.
In absolute terms, Mountain producers spent $13,992 per year on hired labor in 2002, for a total of $1.84 billion in payroll (up from $9,093 per farm and $1.05 billion in 1993). In the Pacific region, the share of production expenses related to labor increased and are higher than the U.S. and Mountain numbers, representing $52,073 per farm and $8.54 billion in total payroll (up from $33,645 per farm and $5.03 billion in 1993).
All of this data suggests that labor is a more important factor of production for agricultural production in the US, the Mountain West and the Pacific region in 2002 than in the early 1990’s. Given that there is a consensus among farm labor experts about the role that newly arrived Hispanics play in the agricultural labor force (Rural Migration News), increasing absolute and relative demand for farm labor may be connected to the region’s growth in Hispanic population. Beyond production agriculture, it is also important to consider allied sectors that may also be first employers of Hispanics, or transitional employers for those trying to move out of production farm jobs into less seasonal work opportunities. These are the other managers who will compete for current supplies of labor, and that will be affected by any new jobs legislation for newly immigrating Hispanics.
Impacted Industries
Typically, immigrants travel to the Intermountain West to work in rural and resort areas. Many social and economic experts consider immigrant workers to be the economic backbone of Western resorts, where they work in construction, fast-food businesses, hospitals, and janitorial services. In rural areas, most immigrants work on farms, in feedlots, and in meat-processing plants. Figure 5 shows which industries, including agriculture, have historically been most reliant on immigrants, and several of those industries will be explored for the Intermountain West region. This section explores the dependence on, and issues affecting, the primary industry employers of immigrant workers.
Figure 5

Agribusiness Employment
Beyond agricultural production, there are several related industries that are also important agricultural employers, influence migration patterns and may compete for workers traditionally tied to farm production jobs. For the U.S., farming and its related industries provided 23.9 million jobs, or one million workers (4.12%) higher than the total 1997 employment (Table 2). Before that, farm and farm-related employment increased by over 3.6 million jobs between 1981 and 1997. Although the number of jobs rose, farm and farm-related employment's share of total U.S. employment declined from 17.3 to 14.3% during that 21-year period. Figure 2 shows that total U.S. farm employment growth between 1990 and 1997 was a little over one-half the rate of general employment growth, while the ratio of farm to total job growth was much higher in all but three of the Mountain region’s states (Idaho, Utah and Wyoming). The relative rate of growth stayed the same between 1997 and 2002, but several Western states saw significantly slowed growth in the farm sector during these years, likely due to the drought in this region that peaked in 2002.
For the U.S., most of the farm-related employment increase occurred in agricultural services, wholesale and retail trade industries, which added almost 5 million jobs. Some of this gain was offset by job losses in farm production, agricultural processing and marketing, and agricultural inputs. Over 5.4 million farm and farm-related jobs were in nonmetro counties in 2002, down from 6.2 million in 1997 and these jobs accounted for about 21% (down from 25% in 1997) of all nonmetro employment. Although farm-related jobs are mostly perceived as rural employment, there was metro farm-related employment growth as well.
The findings from agribusiness employment trends would suggest that broader agricultural employment growth in this region, not just farm production jobs, may also fuel Hispanic growth and be impacted by any new immigrant employment legislation.
Meat-Processing Plants in Rural Areas
According to a USDA-ERS study, meat-processing firms have increasingly relocated plants to rural areas to reduce livestock transportation and feed costs, ensure more consistent quantities of animals, and thereby use processing plants around the clock and throughout the year because of fewer interruptions in livestock supply Chicken production has for many years been concentrated in the rural Southeast; meanwhile, hog-processing plants have relocated to nontraditional regions outside the Midwest to take advantage of lower land and labor costs in rural areas of the West, Southwest, and Southeast. In contrast, beef-processing plants have tended to relocate from urban areas to places near large feedlots where cattle are raised, notably in Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. In all regions of the Nation except the Northeast, jobs in meat processing have shifted from metro to nonmetro counties, reflecting an urban-to-rural transition that began in the 1980s. Between 1981 and 2000, the total number of U.S. meat-processing employees in rural areas doubled from 147,000 (46 percent of U.S. total) to 294,000 (60 percent of U.S. total) and this is true in the Mountain West as well.
Table 4: Location of Meat Processing

Hispanic Workers and Meatpacking
All of these trends contributed to either a growing demand for, or a shortage of, low-skilled workers in the meat-processing industry at a time when stable or declining real wages from meat-processing employment made it relatively less appealing than alternative occupations and careers for an increasingly well-educated native-born workforce. Thus, what had been an urban-based, unionized, and often skilled workforce employed in production plants, supermarkets, and butcher shops in the 1950s gradually changed into a rural-based, mostly nonunionized, and low-skilled workforce concentrated within manufacturing plants by the end of the 1980s,.
Foreign-born Hispanics have helped meet the increased demand for meatpacking workers. Between 1980 and 2000, the share of non-Hispanic Whites in the meat-processing workforce declined from 74 to 49 percent. In contrast, the share of Hispanics increased from 9 to 29 percent, with the foreign-born segment of the Hispanic meat-processing workforce increasing from 50 to 82 percent. Roughly 1 in 10 nonmetro Hispanics now works in meat processing. As educational attainment for the general population rises, and industrial restructuring and greater employment options reduce the relative attraction of low-skilled jobs, U.S. firms can be expected to employ growing shares of Hispanic and foreign-born workers.
Landscaping Sector and H2-Bs
Colorado is the second highest H-2B visa user-state in the country. Of the 66,000 visas issued, approximately 13,000 are used in Colorado. Of that, nearly 4,000 (6% of total visas used) are for the landscape industry. For landscaping companies, somewhere between 35% and 80% of H-2B guest workers return every season. While this obviously helps tremendously with employer training and customer service, it also puts a great reliance on having access to these return workers, and in 2005, the cap was hit on January 3, 2005, just 3 months into the fiscal year – even earlier than the previous fiscal year, when it was hit March 9 (2004). Hitting the cap so early in the year hurts all businesses with seasonal needs, particularly the landscape industry, but also ski resorts, timber, fish and crabbing, tourism, restaurants and hospitality.
Tourism and Service Sector
The tourism, travel and service industries are just as motivated to have the immigration debate resolved. Urging Congress to loosen immigration controls, Marriott International Chairman J.W. Marriott Jr. insists that the hospitality industry "needed a supply of immigrant workers to fill jobs" and condemned those "in Congress (who) want to criminalize the undocumented and their employers." Ten percent of the nation's hotel workers are illegal immigrants, the Pew Center estimates,2777,DRMN_23916_4659710,00.html) . In the West, Colorado ski resorts already snap up as many as 14,000 H-2B foreign temporary worker visas a year. They hire hundreds of South American students via J-1 summer work-travel visas. Foreign workers make up roughly 5 percent of Vail Resorts Inc.'s work force, according to Bill Jensen, senior vice president. If the resort company couldn't get foreign workers to fill jobs, it probably would find American workers at the same price -- but they could be harder to secure.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, illegal immigrants comprise 17 percent of the nation's food preparation workers, 20 percent of its cooks and 23 percent of its dishwashers. But critics argue that the use of immigrant workers has kept wages down. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, inflation-adjusted wages for the broad Food Services and Drinking Establishments category fell 1.65 percent from 2000 to 2005. Illegal immigrants are even more prominent in food manufacturing, where they comprise 14 percent of the work force, including the meatpacking industry discussed before. From 2000 to 2005, inflation-adjusted wages in this sector dropped by 2.24 percent. And in the "animal processing and slaughtering" subcategory, where Pew research contends that illegals make up fully 27 percent of all workers, inflation-adjusted wages fell 1.41 percent between 2000 and 2005. Similar figures emerge for many other illegal immigrant-heavy sectors as well, ranging from dry cleaning and laundry services, to parking facilities, golf courses and country clubs. The prevalence of these industries in the high-income and tourism-heavy Intermountain West makes these trends even more relevant for this region.
Regional analysis of construction employment provides some additional insights (see Table 5). In the top four states of the US–California, Nevada, Texas, Arizona- and the District of Columbia, more than a third of all construction workers are immigrants Still, reliance on foreign-born labor now spreads outside of these traditional immigrant magnets and is evident in states like Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, and North Carolina. The states of the Intermountain region has fairly varied reliance on Hispanic immigrants (from the Americas) in their construction industries, and the connection or competition with agricultural employers is not well studied.

Table 5. Construction Workers by Place of Birth
State Immigrant Construction Worker's Place of Birth Native Born
Americas Asia Europe Other
California 31.36 3.95 2.19 0.33 62.17
Nevada 33.3 1.48 1.7 0.2 63.32
Texas 33.33 1.07 0.73 0.1 64.77
District of Columbia 31.25 1.35 1.59 0.52 65.3
Arizona 31.55 0.59 1.77 0.51 65.58
New York 16.88 3.61 8.34 0.43 70.73
Florida 25.63 0.7 1.89 0.1 71.69
New Jersey 14.44 1.68 9.1 0.37 74.41
New Mexico 20.29 1.68 1.73 0 76.3
Colorado 20.83 0.5 1.91 0.34 76.42
Utah 12.66 0.7 1.43 0.37 84.83
Oregon 8.69 0.99 1.32 0.27 88.73
Washington 3.68 3.01 3.44 0.64 89.22
Idaho 7.85 0.52 1.6 0.27 89.76
Wyoming 3.61 0.16 0.16 0 96.07
Montana 0.22 0 0.97 1.06 97.75
US Total 15.41% 1.46% 2.28% 0.21% 80.63%
US Total 1,925,017 182,359 284,766 26,709 10,070,000
Source: American Community Survey, PUMS 2004

Overall, illegal immigrants make up about 12 percent of the work force. Concern about wage compression is evident in this sector as well. From 1993 - when median home prices began surging at a record pace - through 2005, inflation-adjusted wages in the sector rose only 3.02 percent. And from 2000 to 2005 - the height of the boom - inflation-adjusted construction wages actually fell by 1.59 percent.
Many would say there are some interdependencies between the immigrant worker supplies and more transitory streams that operate in different industries, but there is little evidence to support perceptions. However, construction is nearly year-round in this region and oft-cited as the industry that steals workers from more seasonal (farm, landscaping, ski resort) employment options. Ad hoc evidence would suggest there is some sharing between the more seasonal than normal agricultural operations that exist in these higher altitude regions (Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Montana have growing seasons of less than six months) and the fall/winter tourism industries connected with skiing, snowmobiling and hunting outfitters.
Agricultural employment is down in 2002 in the U.S. and in some parts of the Mountain West, most likely due to decreased production and revenues under severe drought conditions. Yet, this regional downturn runs counter to the general trend during the late 1990’s that showed an increase in workers, wages and employers. This, together with the growth in allied agribusiness workforces suggests that agriculture will continue to be a major employer in this region. It is also interesting to note that wages are relatively high and increasing in the West, which would suggest either a higher quality (educated, more experience) workforce, or a tighter worker supply (which runs counter to the broader labor market).
Many believe the Hispanic population is closely tied to agricultural and related employment opportunities, and population change in the Mountain West states would support that theory. Still the correlation between farm jobs and Hispanic population growth is only insignificantly positive. Absolute numbers suggest that some of the highest Hispanic population growth is in states with higher farm-related employment as well. All of these dynamics are important to consider when debating any farm worker amnesty programs, as they will influence how short-run labor demand by agribusiness managers may influence the long-term demographics of rural areas. What still remains to be seen is whether Hispanics that gain experience and establish themselves in the workforce will remain in agriculture and rural counties, or migrate to less seasonal, better paying jobs in different industrial sectors and geographic areas of the region.
In short, there are reasons to believe that either new farm worker and amnesty program would have both positive and negative effects on farm labor market conditions and rural communities. On the positive side, it would make some current worker populations less “unauthorized”, and thus, possibly more likely to invest in professional development, community institutions and networks, and private capital (housing). In short, it may provide a more experienced, less transitory workforce to farm and agribusiness managers. However, the incentive to gain amnesty with such jobs may also bring a whole new set of workers with limited language skills and experience to farm employers and rural communities. Regardless, the dynamics of agribusiness labor markets and the rural communities they are located in are likely to be impacted.

Hobbs, F. and N. Stoops. 2002. Demographic Trends in the 20th Century: Census 2002 Special Reports. U.S. Department of Commerce. November.

Kandel, W. Meat-Processing Firms Attract Hispanic Workers to Rural America. Amber Waves.

Rural Migration News. 2004. California: Welfare, Housing, Budget. January. Vol. 10. No 1. //

Taylor, J.E. and D. Thilmany. "Worker Turnover, Farm Labor Contractors and IRCA's Impact on the California Farm Labor Market," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 75:350-360, May 1993.

Thilmany, D. and M. Miller. 2002. The Dynamics of the Washington Farm Labor Market. Dynamics of Hired Farm Labor: Constraints and Community Response. CAB International, UK.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service. 2003. Farm Labor. Washington, D.C. April.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Census of Agriculture. 1997.

U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2003. Employment and Unemployment. April downloads

Table 1: US and Mountain West Total and Hispanic Population, 1997 and 2002

Table 2: US and Mountain West Total Employment and Farm Employment, 1997 and 2002

Total Employment, 1997 Total Employment, 2002 Growth in Total Employment Farm Employment, 1997 Farm Employment, 2002 Growth in Farm Employment
US 154,039,886 167,001,363 8.41% 22,905,453 23,848,888 4.12%
Colorado 2,575,294 2,915,339 13.20% 369,270 385,373 4.36%
Idaho 687,964 803,252 16.76% 140,112 145,344 3.73%
Montana 502,171 575,210 14.54% 98,099 102,776 4.77%
Nevada 1,040,356 1,296,759 24.65% 108,797 137,312 26.21%
Oregon 1,956,880 2,108,559 7.75% 337,929 349,509 3.43%
Utah 1,241,126 1,395,229 12.42% 160,770 179,819 11.85%
Washington 3,246,159 3,555,980 9.54% 517,962 523,365 1.04%
Wyoming 300,562 339,121 12.83% 49,805 48,275 -3.07%

Table 3: Mountain region farm and farm-related employment, 2002

Farm industries
Total* Metro Nonmetro
Emp. % Emp. % Emp. %
Farm production 192,718 1.72 69,291 0.76 123,427 5.84
....Farm proprietors 128,391 1.15 41,396 0.46 86,995 4.11
....Farm wage and salary workers 64,327 0.57 27,895 0.31 36,432 1.72
Closely related:
Agricultural services 42,122 0.38 28,195 0.31 13,927 0.66
Ag input industries-- 15,714 0.14 8,863 0.10 6,851 0.32
....Agricultural chemicals 2,001 0.02 999 0.01 1,002 0.05
....Machinery & equipment 1,825 0.02 915 0.01 910 0.04
....Farm supply & mach. wholesale trade 11,354 0.10 6,525 0.07 4,829 0.23
Ag processing & marketing-- 93,269 0.83 68,155 0.75 25,114 1.19
....Meat products 14,729 0.13 10,672 0.12 4,057 0.19
....Dairy products 10,203 0.09 7,544 0.08 2,659 0.13
....Can., frozen, and pres. fruit and veg. 14,391 0.13 8,068 0.09 6,323 0.30
....Grain mill products 4,192 0.04 3,163 0.03 1,029 0.05
....Bakery products 9,769 0.09 9,504 0.10 265 0.01
....Sugar and conf. products 6,146 0.05 2,928 0.03 3,218 0.15
....Beverages 10,738 0.10 9,741 0.11 997 0.05
....Misc. food prep. & kindred products 5,616 0.05 4,584 0.05 1,032 0.05
....Apparel and textiles 5,418 0.05 4,737 0.05 681 0.03
....Packaging 3,177 0.03 2,968 0.03 209 0.01
....Raw mat. whlsle trade 5,561 0.05 1,914 0.02 3,647 0.17
....Warehousing 1,703 0.02 1,297 0.01 406 0.02
Ag Wholesale & retail trade 1,134,539 10.14 913,803 10.07 220,736 10.44
Indirect agribusiness 15,601 0.14 12,134 0.13 3,467 0.16
Farm-related 1,493,963 13.35 1,100,441 12.12 393,522 18.61
All other 9,697,125 86.65 7,976,068 87.88 1,721,057 81.39
Total Emp. 11,191,088 100.00 9,076,509 100.00 2,114,579 100.00

Source: USDA-ERS, Data are based on the 1997 NAICS