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Crop support services are a rising share of farm employment

December 21, 2017

US agriculture employs an average 1.3 million farm workers, according to reports by farmers when paying Unemployment Insurance (UI) taxes on the wages of their hired workers. Federal law has since 1978 required farms employing 10 or more workers for 20 weeks in a year, or paying $20,000 in wages in a quarter, to register and pay UI taxes on their employees’ wages.

Some states including California require smaller farm employers to register and pay UI taxes. BLS estimated that average employment in US agriculture (NAICS 11) was 1.6 million in 2016, including 81 percent covered by the UI system.

Most farm workers are hired directly by the farm operators of the farms where they work. In 2016, crop establishments (NAICS 111) hired an average 560,000 workers directly, and operators of animal agriculture establishments (NAICS 112) hired an average 259,000 workers.

There is more seasonality in crop production than in animal agriculture, which means that some workers who are employed during peak periods will not find jobs when employment drops. The ratio of peak to trough employment is one measure of how many workers must find alternative incomes during that part of the year when there is no farm work. They may find other jobs, collect UI benefits, or drop out of the labor force.

Peak direct-hire crop employment was 633,600 in June, and trough employment was 451,500 in January, for a peak-trough ratio of 1.5, meaning that 50 percent more workers are needed in June than in January. Peak direct-hire animal agriculture employment was 263,100 in June, and trough employment was 251,600 in January, for a peak-trough ratio of 1.1 or a variation of less than 10 percent.

The fastest growth in farm employment is among nonfarm employers known as crop support services (NAICS 1151) that bring workers to farms, an average 330,900 in 2016. Over the past decade, average direct-hire employment in US crops rose four percent, while average crop support employment rose by 10 percent.

Crop support services include cotton ginning (NAICS 115111), soil preparation and planting (115112), crop harvesting by machine (115113), postharvest activities (115114), farm labor contractors (115115), and farm management services (115116). Detailed descriptions of the activities of each are available here.

Average US employment in cotton ginning in 2016 was 6,500, and ranged from a high of 12,400 in November to a low of less than 4,000 in April, May, and June, for a peak-trough ratio of over three. Average employment in US soil preparation in 2016 was 29,500, and ranged from a high of 41,100 in July to a low of 24,000 in January, for a peak-trough ratio of two. Average US machine crop harvesting employment was 12,600, and ranged from a high of almost 14,000 in October-November to 10,200 in February, for a peak-trough ratio of 1.4.

Average US employment in other post-harvest activities was 89,700 in 2016, and ranged from a high of 95,000 in September to a low of 78,200 in February, for a peak-trough ratio of 1.2. Average US employment of farm labor contractors was 174,400 in 2016, and ranged from a high of 206,700 in July to a low of 140,500 in December, for a peak-trough ratio of 1.5. Average US employment of farm management services was 18,200 in 2016, and ranged from a high of 20,500 in June to a low of 14,700 in December, for a peak-trough ratio of 1.3.

US & CA Crop & Crop Support Employment, 2007-16