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Hired Farm Workers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States: Changes in Agriculture, Agricultural Employment and the Conditions of Work -- Jill L. Findeis

Hired Farm Workers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States:

Changes in Agriculture, Agricultural Employment and the Conditions of Work

Jill L. Findeis

Janelle Larson

Hema Swaminathan

Qiuyan Wang

Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology

The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16803

Paper prepared for presentation at the NAWS at 10 Research Seminar, University of California-Davis, Davis, CA, October 7, 2000.

Hired Farm Workers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States:

Changes in Agriculture, Agricultural Employment and the Conditions of Work

Changes in Agriculture Affecting Hired Labor Use in the Region


Adjustments of labor resources on farms in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region continue to follow the long-term structural trends that have been observed for U.S. farms more generally. These include:

1. Decline in the total number of farms in the region,

2. Reductions in the employment of farm household members overall on farms, and

3. Adjustments of labor resources into off-farm work, even among those households that continue to farm.

Yet at the same time that this reduction in farm household employment on farms has occurred, many of the farms in the East that have continued in operation require hired labor that is seasonal and often migrant. Unfortunately for farms requiring hired labor, two recent trends have made it more difficult for farms to find the labor that they argue they need. First, there has been very significant growth in employment opportunities in industries in the service sector in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, a sector that is characterized by jobs that often do not require high levels of skill and have a relative ease of entry and exit by workers. Growth in employment opportunities in services has attracted farm workers from agriculture to jobs that often provide more benefits, higher wages and better working conditions. Farmers have argued that growth in service industry opportunities coupled with smaller farm family sizes (resulting in fewer individuals to provide labor to neighboring farms) have significantly reduced the availability of part-time labor, in particular.

The development of a very tight labor market in recent years has also likely had significant impacts on the availability of labor to work on farms, and has exacerbated a “labor shortage” problem perceived by farmers in this region as early as the late 1980s. Whenever labor can move readily between sectors, agriculture remains vulnerable. The low returns to labor that exist on many farms today doesn’t help to ameliorate this situation.

Changes on Farms
Comparison of Census of Agriculture figures for the New England, Mid-Atlantic and Southern Mid-Atlantic states between 1992 and 1997 show that the numbers of farms hiring labor have declined in all three regions.[1] Overall, the number of farms employing farm workers has declined by 10 percent, with the greatest percentage decline being observed in the Southern Mid-Atlantic region (-13.4 percent). Farms employing larger numbers of workers have been particularly hard hit -- declining in numbers by 22 percent overall. Both New England and the Southern Mid-Atlantic states have witnessed declines in the number of these farms, by 5 percent and 29 percent, respectively. Only in the Mid-Atlantic region did farms employing 10 or more workers annually actually grow in number -- but only by 2.2 percent.

The number of farm workers hired overall in the region has declined as a result. As would be expected given the discussion above, the largest decreases in the hired farm labor workforce have occurred in the Southern Mid-Atlantic states, where the number of workers reported in the Census of Agriculture declined by 20 percent over the 1992 to 1997 period. The number of workers in the New England region also declined somewhat. And again, the only increase in the farm worker population was observed in the Mid-Atlantic region where the number of farms hiring labor and the number of farms hiring 10 or more workers have both increased in the 1990s.

Focusing on the number of farm workers working 150 days or more annually and the number of farms hiring workers for this length of time, it can be observed that fewer laborers worked 150 days or more per year in 1997, as compared to 1992. However, the number of workers employed this amount of time declined less in percentage terms than the number of farm workers overall, resulting in an increasing proportion of the hired farm workforce in the region working 150 days or more annually. At the same time, the number of farms hiring workers for 150 days or more per year decreased substantially, overall and in each of the three subregions, even in the Mid-Atlantic states (see Table 1). This implies a growing concentration of farms hiring workers longer periods of time.

Finally, according to Census statistics, the real labor payroll increased but only minimally over the 1992-97 period in the region. Gains occurred only in the Southern Mid-Atlantic states where farm numbers and numbers of farm workers had declined the most substantially.

Changes in Fruit, Vegetable and Greenhouse Production
Over half of the farm workers interviewed in the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) in the East reported working in field crops, while the other half were employed in fruits and nuts, vegetable production and horticulture (see Table 2). Seventeen percent of workers in the NAWS East region worked in fruits and nuts over the 1993-98 period. In the mid-1990s proportionately fewer farm workers were employed in fruits and nuts production, a statistic that is not surprising given the declines in acreage for regionally important crops such as apples, peaches and pears over this time period (see Table 3). For example, over the 1987-97 period, acres devoted to apples, peaches, and pears in the region declined by 23 percent, 44 percent, and 37 percent, respectively. The largest declines in fruit acres occurred in the Southern Mid-Atlantic region.

The number of farms producing vegetables in the region overall had also declined over the 1987-97 period by 12 percent, although gains in the number of farms producing vegetables were observed in the New England states. At the same time, the acreage devoted to vegetables actually increased slightly (1.2 percent), and even increased substantially (13 percent ) in New England. A significant amount of variability by vegetable crop is observed over time.

Nursery and greenhouse production is becoming increasingly popular in the region, and within all subregions: New England, the Mid-Atlantic and Southern Mid-Atlantic states (see Table 3). The number of nursery and greenhouse operations has increased, as has the total (aggregate) value of sales. The largest percentage increases in both the number of operations and the value of sales occurred in the Southern Mid-Atlantic region, where large declines in other types of agricultural enterprises were documented. The change in the focus of production in this region is not that surprising given the rapid rate of urbanization (and suburbanization) in many areas within the Southern Mid-Atlantic region. However, it should be noted that horticulture employed only 3 percent of farm workers in the East, according to the NAWS data, in both 1997 and 1998.

In summary, the number of farms and number of hired farm workers have declined in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions during the 1990s. While changes have occurred in all subregions (New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, and the Southern Mid-Atlantic states), the Southern Mid-Atlantic region has seen the most significant shifts, with large declines in acres of fruits and vegetables but with the addition of more nursery and greenhouse operations.

Characteristics of Farm Workers in the NAWS East

Farm workers in the NAWS East region tend to be predominantly male, quite young, poorly educated, Hispanic, and unauthorized, according to data from the 1993-98 National Agricultural Workers’ Survey (NAWS). The NAWS data show that nine out of ten hired laborers working on farms in the East are male (Table 4). Most are Hispanic (81 percent) and the remainder are non-Hispanic white (14 percent), non-Hispanic black (3 percent), or of another race or ethnicity (2 percent). Their average age is 29 years and almost all (87 percent) of farm workers in the East have not completed high school. They are almost equally likely to be married as unmarried: 48 percent report being married and 46 percent are unmarried. Compared to U.S. national averages derived from the NAWS data, farm workers in the East tend to be slightly younger, are as likely to be Hispanic, possess somewhat lower levels of education, and are slightly less likely to be married.

There are several differences across gender that are noticeable (Table 5). Compared to females that are hired in farming in the East, male farm workers are on average younger and are less educated, with 88 percent of males having not completed high school. Males also appear more likely to be Hispanic. As might be expected, relative to their overall percentage in the farm worker population, females are generally in higher concentrations in the non-migrant and non-seasonal worker populations. Very few women are migrant workers in the East (Table 5).[2]

What is striking about the East is the very high concentration of unauthorized workers, even higher than the already high national average. In the most recent NAWS survey data that were analyzed (1998), for example, 76 percent of all workers in the East were unauthorized (Table 6). In the migrant and seasonal worker populations the concentrations of unauthorized workers were even higher -- 77 percent for seasonal workers and 85 percent for migrant workers.

It also appears to be the case that there has been a marked upward trend in the East in the percentage of the total worker population that is unauthorized. For example, in 1993, only about half of all farm workers in the East were unauthorized, but by 1998 this percentage had increased to 76 percent. This trend also can be observed (almost uniformly) across all categories of workers: migrant, non-migrant, seasonal and non-seasonal (Table 6).

Patterns of migration
The farm worker population in the East exhibits a high degree of mobility. On average, seven of ten farm workers are migrants and 85 percent work in production agriculture on a seasonal basis. The proportions of the workforce that are migrant or seasonal were higher in the East NAWS region, on average, over the 1993-98 period than in the U.S. overall. Some workers in the East are non-migrants but there appears to be an upward trend in the 1990s in the percentage of farm workers in this region that are classified as migrant (Figure 1). Relatively few farm workers in the East are non-seasonal.

The migrant population can be further classified into those that follow the crops and those that shuttle but do not follow crops. Of the total population, 29 percent are non-migrants, 22 percent follow the crops, and 49 percent shuttle. In terms of country of birth, 66 percent of farm workers were born in Mexico, Puerto Rico was the birthplace of 8 percent of farm workers, and 7 percent were born in Central America; only 17 percent were born in the U.S. (Table 7). A total of 8 of 10 workers had lived in Mexico before migrating to the U.S. In terms of permanent residence, 46 percent of farm workers in the East consider themselves to be permanent residents of the U.S., 41 percent are permanent residents of Mexico, 5.5 percent are associated with Puerto Rico and 4.5 percent consider themselves to be permanent residents of Central America. Those that came to the East after working in another region of the U.S. generally came from the Southeast (55 percent), the Southwest (17 percent) or California (14 percent).

The vast majority of the farm worker population working on farms in the East speaks Spanish (77 percent), and over half cannot speak (52 percent) or read (62 percent) English (Table 8). During the 1990s there has been little change in proficiency rates in English, and few farm workers report participating in classes or in other means of improving English or other skills. The only indirect means of improving English appears to be through school attendance by children, although it should be noted that, by and large, the majority of farm workers in the East are not living with their families when working in the U.S.

Finally, the majority of farm workers working in the East during the 1993 to 1998 period were not living or working in the U.S. prior to 1990, either in farming or in a nonfarm job. Almost 70 percent of the pooled sample for 1993-98 had entered the U.S. since 1990, with those in the workforce in more recent years having spent fewer total years in the U.S. Approximately half of the total population of farm workers surveyed in the 1993-98 period had worked 2 years or less in farming in the U.S. at the time of the survey, and 68 percent had worked 5 years or less. The time spent working at a nonfarm job in the U.S. was very short on average, with many farm workers participating solely in farm work. The short durations of farm and nonfarm work in the U.S. are consistent with the relatively young average age observed for the farm worker population.

Comparison with CPS data on farm workers
In comparison to the NAWS data, data on farm workers from the Current Population Survey shows an older population of workers with higher levels of education, although 48 percent of farm workers in the CPS still lack a high school degree. The CPS data (Table 4) also show that the majority of farm workers covered in the CPS are non-Hispanic white (84 percent). Comparisons between male and female farm workers surveyed in the CPS over the 1993-98 period show similar gender differences in demographic characteristics as observed from the NAWS data (see Table 5).

The CPS clearly misses the population of farm workers that are Hispanic, a problem that is obvious when demographic characteristics are compared across the CPS and NAWS data. The NAWS data are strong in documenting the large proportion of unauthorized and generally highly mobile workers that are not generally uncovered by the CPS. At the same time, it is important to note that the CPS may be a useful data source for examining full-time farm workers, a group that is important (especially for dairy farms) in the East. Full-time farm workers are more likely to be sampled in the CPS and may exist in sufficient numbers in the data to allow analysis, especially if data over time are pooled.

Changes in the Conditions of Work and Income Receipt
Generally farm workers surveyed in the NAWS report that they work on average about 41 hours per week. In the East, farm workers over the 1993-98 period only worked an average 21 weeks per year. Although both non-seasonal and non-migrant workers were employed on average more weeks per year than seasonal and migrant workers, other work is still needed to provide income during time when farm work is not possible. For example, in the East over the 1993-98 period, non-seasonal workers worked on average only 31 weeks per year on farms, leaving these workers with (up to) 21 weeks in the year when they need to find supplementary work. For non-migrant workers, the average number of weeks worked annually in farming was 26, only about half a year. These statistics compare to an average 20 weeks for seasonal workers and 19 weeks for migrant workers.

In the East region the majority of farm workers surveyed in the NAWS did not work in a nonfarm job in the previous year; only about one in four farm workers had worked in a nonfarm job in the previous year. Of those that did, the mean weeks employed in nonfarm work was 22 weeks. Among those that worked off-farm, migrant workers and those performing seasonal farm work worked the least amount of time, with non-migrant and non-seasonal workers being employed more weeks (see Table 9). More recent NAWS surveys show that the farm workforce in the East is less attached to the nonfarm labor market in the U.S., at least in terms of nonfarm work experience (Figure 2). This likely reflects the observation that many farm workers in the East in the most recent years of the NAWS survey are relatively recent arrivals to the U.S.

Farm workers in the East are principally referred by friends, relatives or workmates, i.e., through traditional networks (Table 10). Overall in the East, 77 percent of farm workers are referred in this way, a method that is even more prevalent among migrant (80 percent) and seasonal (79 percent) workers. Less than five percent of farm workers, including farm workers in any of the categories discussed above, have a standing agreement. Only one percent of workers were recruited by a grower or foreman. Over the period of time covered by the NAWS data, only 4 percent of farm workers were recruited by a farm labor contractor, although in more recent years this method of recruitment has become slightly more prevalent in the East.

The method of payment for farm workers in this region is, by and large, hourly, although some workers are paid by piece (Table 11). The NAWS data show that 81 percent of workers in the East received hourly wages, and an additional 17 percent were paid by piece. Non-migrant and non-seasonal workers were most likely to receive hourly wages -- 85 percent among non-migrants and 94 percent among non-seasonal workers. Very few workers receive payment in combination (hourly and piece) and very few receive a salary. In both cases, less than 1 percent of farm workers receive payment in either of these forms.

Regardless of the method of payment, the average wage paid to farm workers in the East is low, with 69 percent receiving $5.15 per hour or less. At the same time, very few farm workers receive either employer-provided benefits or public assistance. The most commonly provided benefit from employers is health insurance or care for a health problem, but this coverage is typically only provided when the problem is directly related to the job. Health care for illness or other health problems incurred away from the work site are, in general, not covered. Further, given the legal status of farm workers in the East, public assistance is generally not accessible. A similar result is seen in the CPS data, but because of the differences in sample coverage discussed earlier, public assistance receipt is more prevalent.

Future Trends


Although the tightness of labor markets in the East will vary over time and therefore affect the ability of farmers to find the labor they need, this is a short run effect. The longer run effect is the extent to which the development of jobs in other sectors can affect agriculture in a region where farm and nonfarm job opportunities coexist side-by-side. In a region characterized by increasing urbanization, it is likely that agriculture will not be able to attract the (legal) workers that farmers want, unless they are able to pay wages, provide benefits, and/or improve the conditions of work to the point where employment in agricultural production becomes more attractive to workers.

The region is now dependent on a workforce that is largely unauthorized, a characteristic that limits the ability of workers to move out of agriculture into the nonfarm sectors. It is likely that the trend toward an unauthorized workforce in agriculture will continue, unless there are changes in immigration policy or unless farmers are able to provide higher returns to the labor that they need.