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Labor in Fruit and Vegetable Agriculture
November 20, 2020
US households, what the government calls consumer units, spent an average $615 a year or $12 a week on fresh fruits and vegetables in 2019. Fresh fruits and vegetables are considered labor intensive because the wages and benefits of the hired farm workers who plant, tend, and harvest them average a third of the farm price.
What would happen if fewer farm workers were available and farm labor costs rose?
1997 Census Data
A study of hand labor in US fruits and vegetables based on the 1997 Census of Agriculture estimated the number of hand workers required for major fruits and vegetables. For example, 50 hours were required to harvest each of the 454,000 acres of apples, and 60 hours to harvest each of the 668,000 acres of processing oranges. The apple harvest was much shorter, so that 57,000 apple pickers were required over 10 weeks, versus 39,000 orange pickers to harvest oranges over 26 weeks.
The most labor-intensive fruit was fresh blueberries, which required 530 hours per acre, so that harvesting 23,000 acres over 12 weeks required 25,000 workers. By contrast, the 45,000 acres of strawberries required 200 harvest hours per acre over 16 weeks, and a total of 14,000 harvest workers.
The fruits in the 1997 table required a total of 280,000 harvest workers for periods that ranged from six weeks (sweet cherries) to 30 weeks (avocados). The three key variables affecting the required harvest workforce are acres of the commodity, harvest hours per acre, and the duration of the harvest. Fewer than 280,000 workers would be required because some workers could harvest several crops, such as cherry harvesters who also pick apples.
US fruits in 1997 required an estimated 280,000 harvest workers
A similar review of farm labor in vegetables estimated that 31,000 workers were required to harvest 74,000 acres of asparagus, followed by 17,000 workers to harvest 285,000 acres of lettuce and 15,000 workers to harvest 236,000 acres of fresh sweet corn. The most labor-intensive vegetables were 15,000 acres of green onions, requiring 300 hours per acre, and 56,000 acres of bell peppers that required 200 harvest hours per acre. Fresh asparagus and cucumbers each required 150 hours per acre.
The vegetables listed in the table required a total of 145,000 harvest workers for periods that ranged from nine weeks for asparagus to 24 to 26 weeks for lettuce, beans, and melons. As with fruit sector workers, some vegetable workers could harvest two crops, so that fewer than 145,000 may be needed.
US vegetables in 1997 required an estimated 145,000 harvest workers
The study concluded that the mechanization of hand tasks was the “only solution to significantly reduce production costs and maintain competitiveness.” It emphasized the technical challenges and economic hurdles to mechanization in “minor” fruit and vegetable commodities, and urged public-private partnerships to support the research needed to accelerate labor-saving mechanization.
2017 Census Data
There have been many changes in fruit and vegetable production between 1997 and 2017. The US population rose by more than 50 million, from 273 million to 325 million. The per capita consumption of many fresh fruits and vegetables rose: fresh strawberry consumption rose from four pounds per person in 1997 to seven pounds per person in 2018. However, the consumption of lettuce fell from 30 pounds per person to 25 pounds between 1997 and 2017.
The acreage of the most labor-intensive fruits rose over the past three decades. The acreage of cultivated blueberries rose from 23,000 to 113,000 between 1997 and 2017, and the acreage of strawberries rose from 45,000 to 60,000. The acreage of apples fell from 454,000 to 382,000 in 2017 and the acreage of all oranges from 842,000 to 603,000.
The acreage of lettuce rose from 286,000 to 343,000, but the acreage of asparagus fell from 74,000 in 1997 to 30,000 in 2017, the acreage of green onions fell from 15,000 to 6,800, and acreage of bell peppers fell from 56,000 to 49,000.
Employment in many fruits and vegetables agriculture rose over the past three decades due to rising yields. Take apples. Yields per acre rose with dwarf trees planted closer together, and labor intensity increased as high-value varieties such as Honeycrisp replaced red and golden delicious.
Estimating the number of hours and workers needed to produce and harvest commodities is difficult for several reasons. First, the most reliable data are for acres, but the acres of apples and oranges include different varieties with unique labor requirements. Oranges include those harvested to be processed into orange juice which do not have to be handled carefully and those harvested for the fresh market which require more care in picking and handling.
Second, commodities may be both hand picked and machine picked, as when the first crop of blueberries is picked by hand and the second is by machine. Even if commodities are entirely hand picked, the first harvest may be a careful pick, and the second harvest a strip pick of remaining fruits and vegetables.
Third, harvesting is not always the most labor-intensive part of production. For example, producing Gala apples is estimated to require over 200 hours an acre to prune trees, thin apples, and cover them with netting, and only 125 hours an acre to harvest.
With these caveats, the table below shows that strawberries require the most labor per acre, four times more than the next most labor-intensive commodities, blueberries and table grapes. Apples require the most harvest workers because of their large acreage, labor intensity, and relatively short harvest season. Oranges require fewer harvest workers because of lower hours per acre and a longer season.
Strawberry harvesting requires the most labor per acre; apple harvesting requires the most workers
Vegetables are harvested to be consumed fresh and to be processed by canning or freezing. Vegetables harvested for the fresh market require the most farm workers, and (iceberg) lettuce stands out as requiring a high number of hours per acre and having a large acreage. The other fresh vegetables with 100,000 or more harvested acres employ fewer than 25,000 workers if workers work 50 hour weeks during the major harvest period.
Broccoli and lettuce require the most harvesting hours per acre
These data show that the major fresh fruits and vegetables could be harvested with about 400,000 hand workers if these workers were employed 50 hours a week during the harvest period. Most workers are not employed 50 hours a week for 10 or 25 weeks, which is why more workers are employed in these harvests than indicated in the table. Seasonality, mismatches between where workers live and where crops are grown, and declining migrancy are some of the factors that make it difficult to assemble harvest workforces efficiently.
Sarig, Yoav, James Thompson, and Galen Brown. 2000. Alternatives to Immigrant Labor? CIS. https://cis.org/Report/Alternatives-Immigrant-Labor
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