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Why don’t Americans apply for $30,000 a year farm jobs?

October 16, 2017

The Los Angeles Times asked recently why Americans do not apply for $30,000 a year farm jobs. Reporters profiled vineyard managers in Napa and Sonoma counties offering $15 an hour jobs to workers in Stockton, 75 miles away.

There are many reasons why Americans may be reluctant to accept $15 an hour farm jobs in Napa and Sonoma. HUD’s fair market rent for a two bedroom apartment in 2017 is $1,600 a month in Napa and Sonoma counties, so that out-of-area workers must endure lengthy commutes or spend over half of their earnings in rent. A worker employed 160 hours a month at $15 earns $2,400, and may have to spend two-thirds of his income on rent in high-cost wine country.

But the major reason why Americans shun seemingly high wage farm jobs is that these jobs are mostly an illusion. In 2015, some 16,400 California agricultural establishments hired an average 421,300 workers and paid them $12.8 billion, an average $30,300 or almost $15 an hour for a full-time worker.

Full-time worker is the key, since most farm workers do not work full time. California farmers reported 705,000 unique farm workers whose maximum earnings were from agriculture in 2015, and these primary farm workers earned an average $17,400 or 58 percent of what a full-time worker would have earned. Indeed, the largest category of farm workers, the 293,900 workers employed by farm labor contractors, earned an average $9,900 in 2015, only 44 percent of what a full-time FLC worker would have earned. Since the state’s minimum wage was $9 an hour in 2015, many FLC workers averaged about 1,000 hours of work at $10 an hour.

Americans are rightly suspicious of flyers that offer $1,000 a week for part-time work from home, and they should be similarly suspicious of reports of farm jobs that pay an average $30,000 a year. There are some high-wage farm jobs, but most farm workers do not have them.

California Primary Farm Worker Average Annual Pay, 2015
Commodity Primary workers Earnings ($mil) Average earnings ($) Primary/Full-time earnings
Ag, Forestry, Fish 705,000 12,288.0 17,434 58%
Crop Prod. 260,000 5,553.9 21,467 66%
Veg & Mel 48,500 1,232.3 25,818 68%
Fruits & Nut 154,000 2,850.0 17,008 57%
Greenhouse 32,700 981.1 30,007 84%
Other crops 18,000 452.1 25,117 68%
Animal Prod. 32,700 983 30,061 86%
Cattle & Ranch 25,800 788.7 30,389 85%
Dairy Cattle 20,234 614,889 30,389 87%
Support Act. Ag 408,670 5,602.3 13,709 50%
Support Crop 403,000 5,440.0 13,498 50%
Soil Prep 17,900 358.4 19,971 53%
Postharvest Crop 62,310 1,549.0 24,859 65%
FLCs 293,900 2903.1 9,878 44%
Farm Mgmt. Ser. 16,800 407.2 24,307 66%
Source: California EDD
Primary/full-time earnings is the actual earnings of farm workers whose maximum earnings were in this NAICS divided by the earnings of a hypothetical worker employed 2,080 hours in this NACIS. For example, there were 20,234 workers whose maximum earnings in 2015 were from dairy farms, and they earned an average $30,389, which is 87 percent of the $34,930 that a full-time worker employed 2,080 hours in dairy would have earned.