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March 1995, Volume 2, Number 3

Characteristics of US Farm Workers

Gabbard, Susan, Richard Mines, and Beatiz Boccalandro. 1994. Migrant Farmworkers: Pursuing Security in an Unstable Labor Market. Washington DC: US Department of Labor , ASP Research Report 5, May.

This report is based on interviews with workers employed on US crop farms in the early 1990s. Migrant farmworkers are defined as those who moved at least 75 miles from their usual residences to do farmwork, and 42 percent of the sample workers were migrants under this definition.

There is no firm estimate of the number of US farmworkers, and there is no uniform definition of migrant farm worker. If there are 2.5 million US farmworkers, and if the sample covered 1.6 million workers employed on crop farms, then there would be 670,000 migrant farmworkers on crop farms. Note that if 10 percent of the remaining 900,000 workers were migrants, the overall migrant percentage would be 30 percent of the US hired farm workforce (90 + 670/2500=30).

Most migrant farmworkers are immigrants--85 percent--and another 10 percent are US-born Hispanics. Their mean age was 30, they had an average seven years US farm work experience, they had an average 6.5 years of schooling, and they averaged fewer than three US farm employers per year. Migrants averaged 25 weeks of farm work annually, and earned about $5.60 hourly.

Two major types of migrants are distinguishable in the data: follow the crop migrants who move from one US farm to another, and shuttle migrants who move back and forth between Mexican homes and US farm jobs. A few migrants shuttle into the US and then follow the crops. About one in three migrant workers follows the crops, five in six shuttle back and forth, and one in six do both.

Follow the crop migrants were the predominant type of migrants in the 1960s, and the notion that migrant workers follow the sun from south to north is the image that still comes to mind when migrants are discussed today. However, only 13 percent of crop workers--an estimated 210,000--and less than 10 percent of all farmworkers--had at least two US farm jobs at least 75 miles apart within in one year.

There has been a major change in the "base state" or usual residence of migrant farmworkers--Mexico has replaced Florida, Texas, and California. Most migrant farmworkers shuttle back and forth between homes in Mexico and jobs in the US, i.e., they maintain homes at least 75 miles from the place where they do farm work for wages. Most of these shuttle migrants--83 percent--have homes in Mexico, and commute to US farm jobs. One in six migrants live in one US location, such as South Texas, and commute to another US location to do farm work, such as California or Michigan.

Migrants prefer to settle in one location. By arraying workers by their years of US farm work experience, it appears that men with less than six years of US farm work experience shuttle or back and forth without their families, and sometimes follow the crops within the US, but later they shuttle into the US for farm jobs in one area, and then settle in the US.

Since migration, especially follow the crop migration, is associated with younger immigrant workers who travel without their families, these data call into question some of the premises upon which the $600 million in federal farm worker assistance programs are based. These programs assume that there are significant numbers of migrant farm worker families who follow the crops, and that their children will be unable to escape the migrant stream without assistance. The NAWS data, however, indicate that, when migrant workers gain experience, they "naturally" tend to settle in one area.