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Farm Labor Trends for the Mountain and Northwest Region -- Dawn Thilmany

Farm Labor Trends for the Mountain and Northwest Region

by

Dawn Thilmany and Jennifer Grannis

Associate Professor and Graduate Research Assistant, Colorado State University

Presented at The NAWS at 10: A Research Seminar, October 2000, Davis, CA

Abstract:

Analyzing farm worker trends is a complex task given the number of factors affecting labor markets at the national, regional, state and local levels. This study examines the Mountain and Pacific Northwest regions with specific attention to Colorado, Washington, and Utah farm labor markets. The objective of this paper is to integrate how forces in the agricultural sector and general labor market have affected agricultural labor management and farm worker experiences. For a complete analysis, many factors including the structure of agricultural production and subsequent changes in farm labor demand, as well as changes in the composition of the farm labor force are examined. Moreover, important hiring, management and general labor market trends that may affect the farm labor markets in these states and region are discussed.

Farm labor is arguably the most complex input in the U.S. agricultural industry. Although labor is rarely mentioned in discussions of sustainable agriculture, producers have rarely been able to maintain employment conditions that sustain local workers on a year-round basis. Agricultural operations have lowered their demand for labor through continued mechanization as evidenced by a continuous decrease in farm labor numbers nationally. Yet, for those enterprises and regions that continue to rely on seasonal labor, the challenge of securing sufficient workers during peak seasons remains. The Pacific Northwest and Mountain states face such challenges and are the focus of this study.

Nationally, agriculture is thought of as a declining industry in terms of employment, but this is not the case in these Western states where agricultural employment has generally increased throughout the past decade. This growth is primarily due to increased production of the labor intensive crops (fruits, vegetables, and nursery crops) demanded by a more health-conscious domestic market, and growing export markets for US agricultural products in the Pacific Rim.

The first sections of this paper will present brief summaries of three states in the Mountain and Pacific West (Washington, Colorado and Utah), with special attention to their unique farm labor market characteristics. In addition to a discussion of agricultural and farm employers in each state, analysis of the current agricultural wages and employment dynamics is also presented. To complement findings derived from data from agriculture and government-based sources, descriptive statistics from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) will be presented and discussed. To the extent possible, market factors that influence the demand for farm labor, hiring and management practices, and how farm labor is organized will also be discussed throughout the analysis. Finally, discussion of the findings and implications for Western labor markets and a brief outlook for farm labor in the region will conclude the paper.

Washington Farm Labor

Washington Agriculture

Washington agriculture employed an average of 91,700 workers in 1998, but a small fraction of that workforce is employed year-round. For example, peak seasonal employment for apple growers during 1998 required over 50,000 workers, an almost fourfold increase from the demand for all seasonal agricultural labor in January (Table 1). Given the absolute size and extreme seasonality of demand for labor among apple producers and other labor-intensive enterprises, Washington is an interesting market to examine, and will be the primary focus of this study.

Agriculture is a leading industry in Washington State in terms of both sales and employment. The value of agricultural production in the state totaled $5.6 billion in 1997, making it the 11th largest agricultural state by sales in the country. The dominance and growth of the apple and cherry industries in the state has contributed to the persistence of extreme seasonal swings in worker demand (Table 1). Unlike national trends, agricultural employment is growing in Washington (Figure 1), and the seasonality of labor demand persists. Washington is a primary destination point in the Western migrant stream due to its large demand for seasonal farmworkers during the fall months when Texas and California producers require less labor.

Figure 2 presents aggregate farm employment numbers for Washington state from 1990 to 1997. The clearest trend is that the demand for workers has consistently increased since 1991. Yet, average hours worked by farm laborers (a substitute for number of workers) has not risen as consistently. Data for 1994 is an exception in both cases since rumors of a bad apple crop kept migrants from traveling to Washington, forcing employers to utilize available workers more fully. That season was the beginning of recent debate on shortages, even though employment numbers (and labor demand) have continued to escalate. Worker data from 1997 represents a positive trend to employment officials. The number of workers required in agriculture remained steady from the previous year, but the average hours worked increased significantly.

The impact of farm labor issues is not uniform across the state of Washington. Almost 80% of the farm employment is located east of the Cascade mountains, with Yakima, Chelan-Douglas, Benton-Franklin and Grant counties representing almost 60% of agricultural employment (Table 3). It is also interesting to note the reliance that each county's economy exhibits with respect to agriculture as measured by the percent of total employment in agriculture. These numbers are important indicators of potential labor shortages, especially when combined with data on agricultural commodities and production in each area.

Wages and Earnings

Similar to national statistics, earnings for Washington agricultural workers are low, but hourly and annual earnings vary substantially across agricultural sectors (Table 2). Hourly wages are competitive with alternative employment options, but the lack of year-round employment keeps annual earnings low. During the month of December 1998, UI claims from crop workers peaked at 7,935 from a low of 1,295 during the previous September, an increase of almost 500%. This seasonal pattern has persisted throughout the 1990's, indicating that attempts at "regularizing" the demand for farm labor has not been successful[1].

Not surprisingly, a high turnover rate exists among farmworkers. Of the 149,650 workers employed in Washington agriculture at some time during 1995, it is estimated that only 45.2% remained in agriculture in 1997. There are many workers who choose to work in both farm and nonagricultural jobs to improve annual earnings. Table 2 presents the average annual earnings of all agricultural workers, as well as those who work in only agriculture (about 70% of the total) and those with both types of employers (31%). Those who work for both types of employers earn no more on an hourly basis, but almost doubled the hours worked (1,142 vs. 695) and number of employers (4 vs. 2) in 1997.

This pattern represents a possible solution for supplying seasonal agriculture, but there are also some drawbacks. There is a "transition" cost to the workers from switching employers twice as often during the year. This, together with the stability of nonagricultural employment likely explains the poor retention rate of workers in agriculture since there is no clear motive for workers to return to farm operations if hourly earns are similar, and few long-term agricultural careers are available. The earnings of workers who left farm jobs between 1995 and 1997 averaged $11,899 with $10,054 earned by those who worked farm and nonfarm jobs, well above the $7,237 earned by farm workers. The complementary seasonality of some nonagricultural work (i.e., food processing) is the primary reason that some workers do remain working in agriculture after securing nonfarm work.

Farm Workers

According to 1997 UI records, the average Washington farmworker is Hispanic (82%), male (76%) and under 40 years of age (64%) and there is over 25% turnover annually out of agriculture. Washington employment officials estimate that 30‑60% of the seasonal agricultural work force is made up of illegal or undocumented workers. In 1995, about 13% of all Washington seasonal farm workers were migrants, (8.5 % were interstate and 4.4% were intrastate workers). More recent national averages of migrant share of the farm workforce range from a low of 6% (in January 1999) to a high of 13.7% (in July 1998). Similarly, in Washington, the proportion of migrants is considerably higher during periods of peak activity with migrants representing nearly one out of every five workers during peak season.

The Central Mountain Region

States with a relatively smaller number of farmworkers do not collect the complete data and worker information developed by Washington's employment officials. However, there are some regional sources of data that include two other states discussed in this study, Colorado and Utah. The Mountain II region, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, includes Colorado, Utah and Nevada, representing the central area of the Mountain West. This regional data will be used to look at farmworker numbers, hours worked and wage trends followed by more detailed information on each state's agricultural sector.

Figure 3 shows the number of farmworkers employed in the Central Mountain region, and the annual average of weekly hours worked from 1994 through the summer quarter of 2000. These numbers average the four periods that the data is tracked (January, April, July and October) for each year. The figure reinforces the finding that employment in some Western states has actually increased in contrast to national trends. Similar to Washington, 1997 shows a promising trend with a stabilization of worker numbers and more weekly hours employed per worker. Even though the number of workers remains stable, the hours employed by each worker has changed sporadically based on the yield variability of some important fruit and vegetable crops for the region.

Wages and Earnings

Wages for workers in Mountain Region II (which includes Colorado, Nevada and Utah), as well as national averages, for the period 1994-2000 are given in Table 4. The region has historically paid lower wages than the national average, but it should be noted that the gap between the region and national narrowed significantly from 1996-98, but has widened again in recent years. This is not surprising given that the worker and hours worked number suggest a less tight labor market for the region in the past couple of years. This theory is also supported by the fact that the gap is widest during the summer harvest season when the ample migrant workforce may dampen regional wages as they move through these states to the fall apple harvest in Washington.

To assist in comparisons with the NAWS data, we will highlight the quarter ending July 1998, when the last surveys were completed in this region. Wages averaged $6.95, with field workers wages estimated at $6.14 and livestock workers wages estimated at $7.08. During this same quarter, 30,000 farm workers were employed in the region, with two-thirds working 150 days or more and one-third expected to work less than 150 days. Finally, it was estimated that the average worker was employed 41.4 hours during this period.

Colorado

Colorado Agriculture

In 1997, agribusiness in Colorado accounted for 2.2% of income and 4.4% of employment (Hine, Garner, Hoag). Total agricultural cash receipts were $4.3 billion dollars in 1998. The total number of farms and ranches in Colorado rose 11% from 1992 to 1997 (to 28,268 operations with 32.6 million acres), but total land in farms decreased 4% in the same period as average farm size decreased (Colorado Agriculture 1998, A Profile, CASS). The most important agricultural commodities for 1998 in Colorado were cattle/calves accounting for 49% and feed crops comprising 13% of cash receipts.

Spanish, Hispanic or Latino farmers operated 945 farms on 631,049 acres of Colorado farmland, representing 3.3% and 1.9% of the all farms and acreage respectively. For comparison, 13% of the Colorado population is Hispanic. Half of these producers operated beef cattle ranches and 20% indicated they were hay farmers.

With respect to labor-intensive agriculture, greenhouse/nursery enterprises accounted for 4.7% of agricultural cash receipts, while vegetables were 7.1% of cash receipts and fruit crops accounted for only 0.5% of agricultural crop cash receipts in 1998. Since Colorado fruit crops are highly susceptible to hail and frost damage, annual production tends to vary significantly from year to year. Fruit and vegetable market receipts dropped from 6% of agricultural sales in Colorado in 1992 to 3% in 1997, and nursery sales have increased from a negligible amount to almost 5% of receipts.

Fruit crops grown in Colorado in 1997 were valued at $14.2 million. The value of fruit crops was primarily divided between four major crops: Apples 60.7%, Peaches 30.3%, Pears 6.6% and Tart Cherries at 2.4%. Most of the fruit production in Colorado is in the Western Plains Counties (Mesa and Delta) where agriculture accounts for 5.5% of employment. Harvesting of all fruit crops generally begins in early July and ends in early November, with fairly stable labor demand throughout that period. 1997 vegetable production in Colorado included 46% onions, 22.9% Carrots, 9% Lettuce, 7.7% sweet corn, 5.5% cabbage, 4.6% cantaloupe and 4.3% in other crops. Vegetable production in Colorado is concentrated in the eastern counties, but also includes the San Luis Valley and portions of Southwestern Colorado. Vegetable harvest for most corps begins in mid-July and the heaviest activity ends by late September.

Total state cash receipts from Farm Production in 1997 were $733 million while receipts from Agricultural Inputs were $685 million and sales in Processing and Marketing were $1.046 billion. The receipts from these sectors summed to only 2.2% of total state income, but employment in these sectors represent 4.4% of state employment (Hine, Garner, Hoag). Between 1992 and 1997, farm production employment was up 22% and the agricultural input sector had employment growth of 50% while processing/marketing employment levels declined by 14%. These combined for a 9.5% overall increase in employment in agribusiness sectors between 1992 and 1997, but a decrease in agribusiness as a percentage of total employment in Colorado due to steep growth in the general economy.

The top ten agriculture counties where income from the agribusiness sector is a percentage of total county income are listed in Table 5. Table 6 outlines employment in the agribusiness sector as a percentage of county employment[2]. Unfortunately, from this list, only Saguache was a site of NAWS surveys, so that sample may not be a clear representation of Colorado counties with large agri-employment concentrations. Overall, only 9.6% of all Colorado farm employment takes place in these 3 counties (Alamosa, Saguache and Rio Grande), whereas Weld county alone accounts for 18% of the state farm workforce.

Table 7 presents more regional information on agribusiness employment and total population. These numbers show that the San Luis Valley (where all NAWS surveys took place) and the Eastern Plains are highly dependent on agricultural employment, while the share of income from agribusiness for these two regions was 13.58% and 23.65%, respectively.

Farm Workers

In 1997, 9,394 Colorado farms hired 46,072 farm workers. Estimated 1997 payroll for those workers was $263.6 million (Ag Census 1997). Of these farms, 4,406 (47%) indicated that they hired at least some of their workers for more than 150 days, accounting for 15,232 farm laborers (33% of all workers). There were 8,204 farms (87%) indicating they hired some workers for less than 150 days, and 30,840 (67%) of the farm workers fell into this category. 744 farms indicated they hired more than 10 farm workers, and 24,307 (53%) of Colorado farm workers worked for these relatively large employers (Census of Agriculture).

As discussed previously, there is little worker-level data, but there is some aggregate data from which to draw information on average earnings. According to the 1997 Census of Agriculture, the average earnings for a farmworker was $5,722 for work performed in Colorado. However, this varies greatly based on the nature of the work. For farms where workers are only employed for 150 days or more (less than 20% of farms), average earnings were $13,209 whereas those farms who hired only seasonal workers (less than 150 days) paid workers an average of $1,501. For farms where both types of workers were employed (about one-third of all farms), average earnings were close to overall average at $6,560.

It is interesting to note that the three counties included in the NAWS sample for Colorado had very similar earnings to the statewide average, $5,722. Alamosa county earnings were $6,122, Rio Grande earnings were $4,859 and Saguache earnings were $4,751, while the biggest employment county, Weld, had average earnings of $7,556.

Although there is not good data on the number or share of migrant workers in Colorado's farm workforce, The INS estimated the 1996 illegal alien population in the entire state population at 45,000, and a flow of 50,418 new legal immigrants into Colorado from 1991 to 1996 (Colorado Immigration Facts).

Utah

In 1998, Utah had 15,000 farms and ranches that covered 11.6 million acres. Cash farm receipts totaled $953 million in 1998, representing 1.6% of the gross state product. All livestock sales accounted for 75% of the total agricultural cash receipts, with Cattle and Calves accounting for 33.6% of cash receipts. Dairy products represented 20.6% of all commodities cash receipts. Feed crops accounted for 13.4% of all cash receipts with the majority of that segment’s receipts attributable to hay. With respect to labor-intensive agriculture, vegetables represented 2.6% and fruit crops were 1.3% of agricultural cash receipts. Finally, greenhouse and nursery products accounted for 3.4% of cash receipts. Utah is ranked 37th nationally for cash receipts for agriculture and only 31% of Utah farms hire laborers. However, 50% of fruit and vegetable farms hire laborers (Thilmany).

According to the 1997 Census of Agriculture, the average earnings for a farmworker was $3,141 for work performed in Utah, substantially below the Colorado average. Once again, the average varies based on the nature of the work, and much of the reason for Utah's low earnings is the extreme seasonality of demand for labor. For farms where workers are only employed for 150 days or more (less than 10% of farms), average earnings were $10,000 whereas those farms who hired only seasonal workers (less than 150 days) paid workers an average of only $905. For farms where both types of workers were employed (about one-quarter of all farms), average earnings were above the overall average at $4,305. Utah county had the largest employment, with 17% of all farm workers in the state (75% seasonal in nature), and paid an average of $3,098.

In 1998, total cash receipts from fruits were $14.25 million with apples, sweet cherries, tart cherries, and peaches accounting for 32.8%, 13%, 30.3% and 13.3% of these sales, respectively. Vegetables accounted for 2.8% of agricultural cash receipts in 1998 (with 17% and 44.6% of vegetable receipts attributed to potatoes and onions, respectively). The remaining 38% of vegetable sales include cantaloupes, cabbages, sweet corn and watermelons. Utah fruit and vegetable harvest and peak labor seasons follow very similar patterns to Colorado.

Since the 1987 Agriculture Census, the number of Utah farms has increased, but in contrast to Colorado, the amount of land in production has also increased. Average farm size in 1987 was 710 acres while the 1997 average was 848 acres, and total acreage in farms increased from 9.9 million acres to 12 million acres during the same period. Nationally, Utah is the second leading producer of tart cherries, mink pelts and the third leading producer of apricots. Other agricultural products of national importance include sheep, sweet cherries, and onions.

According to the 1997 Agricultural Census, there are 120 Utah farms (less than 1%) operated by Hispanic farmers. For comparison, the total population of Hispanics in Utah was 130,000 in 1994, or 6 to 7% of the Utah population (as reported by the state's Department of Hispanic Affairs). Still, this number represents a significant increase from the 49 Hispanic operators reported in the 1987 Agriculture Census. The majority of farms operated by ethnic farmers are in the beef cattle and ranching industries.

Utah's Hispanic population is concentrated in the Wasatch Front, with significant increases during the past decade in Park City, St. George, Logan, Wendover and Tooele. According to the INS, the estimated illegal alien population in Utah was 15,000 in 1996, and 21,779 legal immigrants settled in the state between 1991 and 1996. The Hispanic population is expected to increase to 8% in 2000.

Farmworker Characteristics: Regional Analysis of NAWS data
In order to assess the value of integrating NAWS data with other farm labor data sources, a comparison of findings from these sources is necessary. The objective of such analysis is to determine how complementary the worker-level NAWS data will be with respect to information gathered at the producer and industry level by the Census of Agriculture and other state and federal agricultural sources. NAWS data is aggregated into six regions. Region 5, the focus of this study, includes several Northwest and Mountain states (Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Colorado).

There are several important factors to note before proceeding with the analysis. First, the regional aggregation of data will make it somewhat difficult to do valid comparisons since some of the preceding analysis is based on state-level data, and other components are based on regional data that does not cover the same geographic areas as the NAWS regions. Moreover, the state level analysis illustrated that, although there is some similarities across the Northwest and Mountain states, the aggregation of the data across the region is likely to significantly lower the value of understanding any one area's labor trends. Also, as discussed previously, the primary employment counties for Colorado are not covered in the NAWS sample, and there is no coverage of Utah workers in the NAWS data set.

Given these reservations about the data, we will proceed with our comparative analysis and discussion. First, a discussion of farmworker employment experiences will be presented. Then, wages and income for the farm workforce will be compared and discussed. Finally, more personal worker characteristics, including demographics, housing and government assistance will be presented.

Farmworker Residence and Employment Experiences (1998)
There is interest in assessing and comparing the immigration and employment behavior of farmworkers due to debates about the need for continued immigration and guestworkers to supply the agricultural industry to counteract high turnover by previous workers. Figure 4 shows two comparisons: the length of time in US compared to time spent in farm work, and how these statistics vary in the Northwest region relative to the entire set of respondents. Interestingly, the sample averages more years of farm work than residence for both samples, indicating that employment was established before a move was made in the majority of cases. Among the national sample, more respondents claimed to have lived in the US for a shorter period of time than the farmworkers surveyed in this region. A similar pattern exists for length of employment in farm work. Those in the US sample has relatively less years in farm work than those in the region.

Not surprisingly, a larger percentage of this region's respondents indicate that they are non-migrant farmworkers, and these numbers have remained constant across the five years in the sample. During this time there has also been little change in the distribution of migrant workers between “Following the Crop” and “Shuttling”, either Internationally or working more than 75 miles from homebase. In short, this region has a slightly more established group of workers.

Given the unique nature of this region's agriculture, it is likely that the share of work in various crops and tasks will vary from the national average. Figure 5 shows that in 1998, 32% of US workers were employed in vegetable fields and 35% were working in the fruit and nut industry, while the Northwest region had a stronger tie to the fruit and nut industry (accounting for 43% of workers). This is not surprising given Washington’s dominance in the regional sample and the nature of its agriculture. Still, 29% of the remaining share were employed in the vegetable sector, while horticulture employers are similarly represented in the region and nationally (12% and 11%, respectively). Finally, field crop workers were more prevalent in the national sample (11 vs. 2%) and workers in multiple crops were slightly more common in this region (15 vs. 10%). Although a time series is not presented in the figure, it should be noted that the fruits and nuts industry has dominated the region’s employment throughout the 1990’s, while the share employed in vegetables have increased continuously since a dip in 1994 numbers.

The employment tasks in this region are quite similar to national shares, with a few, small deviations. According to Figure 6, the majority of assignments in the region are for harvest (40%), similar to the national share (36%). Nationally, 26% of positions are for semi-skilled tasks, but this decreases to 20% for this region. Finally, the national sample has a slight higher share of pre-harvest workers, while the region has a more post-harvest and other workers. It should be noted that the supervisor wage and assignments are left out of the discussion since there was such a small sample, especially at the regional level.

Wages and Earnings (1998)

There is quite a bit of interest in the earnings of farmworkers among those policymakers and agencies who intend to manage and support the national farm workforce. According to this survey, regional wages are always higher than the national averages, regardless of task (Figure 7). This may seem counterintuitive given the comparison in Table 4, but once again, the dominance of Washington state in this sample (and higher wages in that state as shown in Table 2), may explain this result. The “wedge” between regional and national wages also appears to be fairly constant, and there were less differences in wages across tasks than one might have expected given the differing nature of these tasks. Yet, as discussed previously, higher wages are not always an indicator of high earnings, given the extreme seasonality of farm labor demand, especially in this region.

Figures 8 and 9 show two measures of income for NAWS respondents at the national and regional level. Figure 8 shows the cumulative income distribution, which illustrates the share of farmworkers in each sample that fall under a specific income level. It is clear that earnings remain low, with 90% of each sample below the $20,000 annual income levels, but the regional sample appears to have slightly better earnings since a lower share of the sample has the lowest income levels ($10,000 and below).

Figure 9 focuses on average household incomes with respect to household size, and compares this to the US poverty levels for each household size (as defined by the US Census Bureau). Not surprisingly, most households are below the poverty line, specifically, those with any more than two members in the household. This would suggest that those households with children are at the greatest economic disadvantage. Also, this bias against larger households is more pronounced in Region 5, which is a stark contrast from the finding that regional households with two members earn significantly more than the national sample.

Worker Demographics and Household Characteristics (1998)

Nationally, 77% of farmworkers were born in Mexico, and similarly, 78% of Region 5’s sample are native Mexicans. The region also has a similar share of Native American workers (7 vs. 9% nationally), but there were no Asians or Pacific Islanders responding to the survey in this region. Similar to the US sample, only 27% of the respondents from the region indicated they were authorized to work in the US (green card), while a significant portion (45%) indicated they were working illegally in the US. This finding is consistent with the fact that 22% of all national respondents indicated they were US citizens compared to 28% of the regional sample.

Significant numbers of farmworker households nationally (72.5%) and in the region (66.3%) do not have children in their household (Figure 9). Still, more than 10% of national households have one child, and even larger percentage, 12.8% have two children. Similarly, 11.1% and 8% of regional households have one and two children, and significantly more regional households have three or more children than the national sample. This makes the finding on poverty levels for such households even more alarming for this region.

Given nationwide concerns about sufficient supplies of farmworker housing (as well as general concerns about housing affordability), analysis of housing choices among the sample shows some interesting findings. A little over half of the national sample rents their housing in the general market, compared to 65% regionally (Figure 10). Respondents from Region 5 were also more likely to own their home (24% vs. 18% nationally). The higher shares in these two categories compensate for the fact that few employers offer housing to workers in this region. Other housing options (government housing or housing paid through wage deductions) represent a very small share of either the national or regional sample.

Finally, continuing debates on the public cost of farm worker populations in the country can be better informed if there is a better understanding of how this population uses government services. Figure 11 shows that there are some significant differences between the regional and national sample with respect to the absolute and relative use of various public services. Overall, there is a relatively small share of farm workers that use any government services (less than one-quarter for any given service). Workers in the national sample are more likely to use unemployment insurance, while those in Region 5 were more likely to report using food stamps. Both samples use medicaid and WIC to some extent, but the use of WIC is more likely in this region (which is not surprising given the higher numbers of children in households). Finally, few workers report use AFDC, welfare or other government assistance.

Regional Agricultural Employment Outlook

State level data, together with the NAWS samples, helps to illustrate the current state of the farm labor market in the Central Mountain and Pacific Northwest regions. As one of the few areas of the country that faces an increased demand for farm labor, this region may present some of the most important issues for pending legislation that will affect this workforce.

Regionally, farmworkers face many of the same challenges as the national workforce, with substandard earnings and long-term employment options. There is some clear potential for improved earnings among this workforce (as evidenced by 1997 data), but household incomes continue to lag. The region also shows some promising social aspects, including more established residences that have a stronger family orientation (more children) and more permanent housing choices (ownership of homes).

Beyond the results presented in this study, there are several issues to address. First, even though NAWS data shows some potential to enhance what can be found at aggregate levels from state reported data, current NAWS information from this region is likely to have some biases. The concentration of worker samples from areas most historically linked with the farm labor markets and Hispanic populations (especially in Colorado), may bias several of the results presented here (especially those that show a more settled workforce). Moreover, our limited access to this data, including regional aggregation of the samples from these states, makes further analysis difficult.

To answer many of the questions that still remain on the workforce and labor market, a more socioeonomic approach to data gathering at the state level (and among the NAWS survey team) should be developed. Tracking workers across the migrant streams, and in and out of agricultural work, will provide a better baseline of data from which to analyze the stability and social implications of the farm labor market and workers.

Conclusions

Employment officials throughout the Northwest and Central Mountain states note increasing concern among the producers whose highly perishable crops require large volumes of extremely seasonal labor. Agricultural producer organizations dispute the General Accounting Office's finding that a sufficient workforce exists at the national level (Kiesling-Fox, Lipton and Thornton). It is not known whether a labor shortage exists, or if economic incentives and other labor management strategies would alleviate the tight labor market conditions faced by producers.

As discussed previously, 1997 represented a positive trend to employment officials since the number of workers remained steady, but the average hours worked (and subsequently, worker earnings) increased significantly. This stabilization of the farm workforce may represent a market-clearing equilibrium where workers are offered sufficient incentives to work from employers who are willing to pay better wages and provide more total hours to secure adequate labor. Yet, there are employers who declared 1997 unacceptable due to their inability to get crops harvested as quickly as they would have preferred. The reversing of this trend in subsequent years, and continued pressure for a guestworker program, are clear signals of the direction such employers would prefer for the farm labor market.

References:

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