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US Agriculture and Labor

October 16, 2017

Agriculture is the production of food and fiber on farms, and serves as the keystone of the larger food system that includes input industries such as seed, fertilizer and equipment firms and the output sector that packs, processes, and distributes food and fiber to consumers in the US and abroad, including via grocery stores and restaurants. Relatively few food-system jobs are on farms, about a sixth, while two-thirds are in food services and restaurants.

Food system jobs are shifting from farming and food manufacturing to services that distribute, prepare, and serve food. The number of jobs for hired workers on farms has been stable at about 1.3 million over the past several decades, as the expansion of labor-intensive commodities such as strawberries creates jobs even as labor-saving mechanization reduces employment in commodities such as raisin grapes. Some jobs that used to be done in packing houses by nonfarm workers are now performed in the fields by farm workers, such as the preparation of lettuce and melons for market in the field.

The US Department of Labor projects stable farm employment. Hired workers did two-thirds of US farm work in 2014, that is, wage and salary workers were two-thirds of average employment on farms, reflecting the fact that many farmers also have nonfarm jobs. The number of farmers and unpaid family members fell 22 percent between 2004 and 2014, while average farm worker employment rose 20 percent. The average employment of both farmers and farm workers is projected to fall slightly by 2024.

Table 1. US: Average Agricultural Employment (thousands): 2004, 2014, 2024
  Change Change
Sector 2004 2014 2024 2004-14 2014-24
Ag wage & salary 1,149 1,384 1,307 20% -6%
Ag self-employed 962 754 720 -22% -5%
Total ag 2,111 2,138 2,027 1% -5%
Hired share 54% 65% 64%    
BLS projections based on CPS, including forestry and fishing