Skip to navigation

Skip to main content

Rural Migration News Blog

contact us

Farm earnings over three decades

 Click here to download this blog post as a PDF file

March 19, 2021

Between 1989 and 2019, the real hourly earnings of nonsupervisory US farm workers rose by 40 percent, twice as fast as the inflation-adjusted average hourly earnings of nonfarm production workers. Farm worker earnings data are collected by USDA’s Farm Labor Survey, and nonfarm production worker earnings by the BLS Current Employment Statistics program.

Real farm worker earnings rose almost twice as fast as nonfarm earnings in the 1990s, slightly faster in the 2000s, and almost three times faster between 2010 and 2019. Farm worker earnings have traditionally been 50 percent of nonfarm earnings, but their faster growth in recent years raised average farm earnings to 60 percent of average nonfarm earnings in 2019.

The real average hourly earnings of farm workers rose twice as fast as nonfarm workers, 1989-2019

USDA collects data from farm operators by asking them to report the total earnings of different types of employees, such as workers employed in crops, those involved with animals, and equipment operators, for the week that includes the 12th of the month of January, April, July, and October. Employers also report the total hours worked by each type of employee during the survey week. The FLS divides earnings by hours to calculate the average hourly earnings of all hired farm workers, non-supervisory workers, crop workers, livestock workers, equipment operators and earnings in other occupations.

Farmers report data to USDA only for workers they hire directly, that is, they do not report the employment and earnings of workers who are brought to their farms by labor contractors and other nonfarm employers.

The FLS method of calculating hourly earnings can accommodate diverse wage systems, including hourly and piece rate systems. Piece rate workers typically earn more than the farm’s hourly wage for general labor, and they often work fewer hours than other farm workers, so their higher hourly earnings can “pull up” FLS average hourly earnings. Similarly the inclusion of equipment operators, mechanics, and other skilled workers can raise the FLS-reported average hourly earnings of non-supervisory field and livestock workers that is used to set AEWRs.

Beginning in 2015, the FLS began to collect and report employment and earnings by SOC code. The FLS listed six SOC codes, including three in which employment in July 2015 exceeded 100,000, viz, crop workers, 404,000, animal workers, 194,000, and equipment operators, 152,000. The FLS reported that US crop workers (45-2092) earned an average $11.50 an hour in July 2015.

Farm employers in 2020 reported 568,000 hired farm workers in January and 777,000 in July, for aaverage employment of 698,000, with 75 (July) to 85 (January) percent of these workers expected to be employed on their farms at least 150 days. The FLS finds that US farms employ an average 700,000 directly hired farm workers.

Beginning in 2019, the FLS began to distinguish gross or pretax from base wages, which exclude bonuses and overtime pay and, for piece rate workers, include only the minimum hourly guarantee rather than actual earnings. The purpose of piece rate wage systems is to encourage workers to work fast without close supervision, so piece rate workers typically earn 15 to 25 percent more than the minimum hourly guaranteed wage.

The very small gaps between gross and base wages in the FLS suggest that the 7.65 percent employee-paid Social Security and Medicare taxes are offset by the low guaranteed wages of piece rate workers. Piece rate earnings are included in FLS gross wages. The FLS began to distinguish gross and base hours worked in 2020. Gross hours are all hours worked, and base hours exclude overtime hours.

Farm employers report hired workers by occupation, and distinguish gross from base hours and earnings

Enter the Worker Code from Page 5 Number of Paid Workers that week Total Hours Worked that week How many of the Total Hours Worked that week were... Total Gross Wages Paid that Week (Dollars) How much of the Total Gross Wages Paid that week were...
Total Base Hours Total Overtime Hours Total Base Wages (Dollars) Total Bonus Wages (Dollars) Total Overtime Wages (Dollars)
611 612 613 616 617 614 620 627 628
611 612 613 616 617 614 620 627 628
611 612 613 616 617 614 620 627 628

The average annual gross hourly earnings of US crop 45-2092 workers was $14.59 in 2020, and the base earnings were $14.59, up 4.4 percent and 7.2 percent from the gross and base earnings of $13.98 and $13.33 in 2019. In July 2020 the 346,000 US crop 45-2092 workers had average gross earnings of $14.80 and base earnings of $14.50.

The FLS reports average hourly earnings by multistate region. The California gross earnings of field and livestock workers combined in July 2020 were $16.29 and the base earnings were $16.18, well above US levels. In California, the Pacific states of OR and WA, and the Northern Plains states of KS, NE, ND, and SD gross and base hourly earnings for field and livestock workers combined were above $16 in July 2020, while in the southeastern states and Florida gross and base hourly earnings were below $13.

States and Regions. In most regions, QCEW weekly wages rose faster than FLS hourly earnings over the past decade, especially for directly hired crop workers. Since QCEW wage data are available by state, they could provide a substitute to adjust AEWRs.

California illustrates how QCEW weekly wages rose faster than FLS hourly earnings. The average weekly earnings of workers hired by California crop and livestock employers rose 183 percent in nominal terms over the three decades between 1990 and 2019, according to the QCEW, including 38 percent between 1990 and 1999, 37 percent between 2000 and 2009, and 44 percent between 2010 and 2019.

The California FLS measure of average hourly earnings rose less, up 154 percent over the three decades between 1990 and 2019, including 25 percent between 1990 and 1999, 36 percent between 2000 and 2009, and 43 percent between 2010 and 2019, that is, the QCEW rose faster than the FLS in each decade, with the largest gap in the 1990s.

Florida is different. During the 1990s, both QCEW weekly and FLS hourly earnings rose faster in Florida than in California. The FLS rose 35 percent in Florida between 1990 and 1999 compared with 25 percent in California, but rose slower between 2000 and 2009, up 20 percent in Florida and 36 percent in California. The big discrepancy was between 2010 and 2019, when QCEW average weekly wage growth was up the same 44 percent in both CA and FL, but FLS earnings were up 43 percent in CA and only 23 percent in FL.

Could the rising employment of H-2A workers explain the divergence in wage growth between QCEW and FLS wage growth in Florida? H-2A workers are included in California QCEW data, but not in Florida QCEW data, while H-2A workers are included in FLS data in both states. The QCEW data suggest that wages for non-H2A Florida crop and livestock workers who were hired directly by farm operators rose much faster than the FLS measure of average hourly earnings for Florida crop and livestock workers. Many of Florida’s H-2A workers are employed by FLCs, who are not surveyed by the FLS.

Florida’s farm wage slowed between 2010 and 2019, and Florida’s QCEW wage growth was twice its FLS wage growth

There is a similar contrast in wage trends between the Pacific region of OR and WA and the Southeast region of AL, GA, and SC. The average weekly earnings of workers hired directly by crop and livestock farms in OR and WA rose 228 percent over the three decades between 1990 and 2019, including 56 percent between 1990 and 1999, 33 percent between 2000 and 2009, and 50 percent between 2010 and 2019. The OR-WA FLS measure of average hourly earnings rose less, up 180 percent over the three decades between 1990 and 2019, including 34 percent between 1990 and 1999, 33 percent between 2000 and 2009, and 40 percent between 2010 and 2019.

In the Southeast region of AL, GA, and SC, the QCEW weekly wages of directly hired crop and livestock workers rose 158 percent over the three decades between 1990 and 2019, including 37 percent between 1990 and 1999, 33 percent between 2000 and 2009, and 39 percent between 2010 and 2019. The AL-GA-SC measure of average hourly earnings rose 163 percent over the three decades, including 51 percent between 1990 and 1999, 33 percent between 2000 and 2009, and 28 percent between 2010 and 2019.

Pacific QCEW and FLS farm wages rose 50% between 2010 and 2019; Southeast farm wages increased less, and FLS earnings rose slower (28%) than QCEW wages (39%)

The growth of average weekly wages in the QCEW in the southeast was slower than the growth in FLS farm worker earnings in the 1990s, similar in the first decade of the 2000s, and slower since 2010. One reason may be that southeastern states have high shares of H-2A guest workers whose employment and wages are included in the FLS but not in QCEW data.

CA and WA require employers of H-2A workers to report their employment and earnings to the QCEW, while Florida and southeastern states do not. As the H-2A program expanded between 2010 and 2019, there was little difference in QCEW and FLS wage growth in California and the Pacific states, but QCEW wages rose faster than FLS earnings in the QCEW in Florida and the southeastern states.

How does the presence of H-2A workers affect wage trends in the QCEW and FLS? Some farm employers argue that the FLS-based AEWR rachets upward because average FLS earnings for one year become the AEWR for the next year. In most wage distributions, a relative handful of high earners “pull up” the average wage, so that the average wage exceeds the median wage. If 60 to 70 percent of workers in the FLS survey are paid less than the average wage, using the average wage in one year to set the AEWR for the next could have a ratcheting effect.

This is one why some employers want to set AEWRs by occupation for each state and region, which is what DOL proposed July 26, 2019. However, DOL’s AEWRs-by-occupation proposal was withdrawn by the Biden Administration in January 2021, so there is one AEWR per state or region based on the FLS in 2021.

FLCs. Farm labor contractors are not included in the FLS survey, but are included in the QCEW if they satisfy federal and state criteria. The QCEW reported 2,800 US FLC establishments in 2019 and average FLC employment of 181,300 (monthly employment ranged from a low of 141,600 in March to 216,700 in June) and average weekly wages of $530. US FLC establishments and average employment have been rising, up from 2,200 and 154,500 in 2009, with most of the increase in California.

The number of FLC establishments and employment rose in California and fell in Florida over the last decade. California had 1,450 FLC establishments in 2019, over half of all US FLC establishments, and they had average employment of 150,600, over 80 percent of average US FLC employment. CA FLCs paid average weekly wages of $535 in 2019.

California had 1,030 FLC establishments and 111,700 average FLC employment in 2009, suggesting that the number of establishments rose 41 percent and average employment rose 35 percent over the past decade.

Florida had 260 FLC establishments in 2019, average employment of 3,900, and average weekly wages of $425. This was down from 390 FLC establishments and 17,200 average FLC employment in 2009.

What could explain the shrinking employment and slower growth of FLC weekly wages in Florida after 2005? One reason may be that Florida FLCs employ mostly H-2A workers whose employment and wages are not reported to the unemployment insurance system and are excluded from QCEW data. Over 39,000 farm jobs were certified to be filled by H-2A workers in Florida in FY20, versus 25,500 in California.

The average weekly wages of FLC employees in CA and the US were lower than in Florida until 2005, when FL FLC weekly earnings fell behind

Average weekly earnings of FLC employees, 1990-2019 ($)

Appendix. Weekly QCEW and hourly FLS earnings by state and region, 1990-2019

California farm wages rose fastest during the 2010-19 decade

California farm wages rose fastest during the 2010-19 decade
  Weekly wages   Hourly Wages  
QCEW QCEW QCEW FLS FLS NAWS
All ag Crop&Live Crop&CropSup All Hired Crop&Live NAWS
1990 CALIFORNIA 246 266 240 6.34 5.81 5.73
1991 CALIFORNIA 250 273 243 6.41 5.90 5.43
1992 CALIFORNIA 260 283 254 6.66 6.11 5.50
1993 CALIFORNIA 261 289 254 6.56 6.03 5.52
1994 CALIFORNIA 261 293 255 6.78 6.24 5.84
1995 CALIFORNIA 265 306 258 6.83 6.26 5.95
1996 CALIFORNIA 266 313 259 7.01 6.53 5.40
1997 CALIFORNIA 285 331 278 7.32 6.87 5.78
1998 CALIFORNIA 307 355 300 7.70 7.23 6.31
1999 CALIFORNIA 322 367 315 7.88 7.27 6.54
2000 CALIFORNIA 333 377 325 8.21 7.56 6.75
2001 CALIFORNIA 355 395 348 8.67 8.02 7.12
2002 CALIFORNIA 375 412 367 9.14 8.46 7.63
2003 CALIFORNIA 379 415 371 9.25 8.50 7.76
2004 CALIFORNIA 396 433 387 9.33 8.58 8.03
2005 CALIFORNIA 407 452 398 9.76 9.00 7.70
2006 CALIFORNIA 426 475 416 10.09 9.20 7.79
2007 CALIFORNIA 449 501 439 10.58 9.74 8.85
2008 CALIFORNIA 460 513 449 11.05 10.20 8.90
2009 CALIFORNIA 466 515 455 11.14 10.26 9.31
2010 CALIFORNIA 473 522 463 11.24 10.31 9.33
2011 CALIFORNIA 488 537 478 11.04 10.24 8.85
2012 CALIFORNIA 508 561 500 11.64 10.75 9.26
2013 CALIFORNIA 529 586 522 11.85 11.01 9.93
2014 CALIFORNIA 548 609 540 12.36 11.33 10.28
2015 CALIFORNIA 578 634 570 13.05 11.89 10.74
2016 CALIFORNIA 618 670 610 13.81 12.57 10.91
2017 CALIFORNIA 636 694 627 14.46 13.18  
2018 CALIFORNIA 659 723 650 15.41 13.92  
2019 CALIFORNIA 691 752 681 16.21 14.77  
  1990-99 31% 38% 31% 24% 25% 14%
  2000-09 40% 37% 40% 36% 36% 38%
  2010-19 46% 44% 47% 44% 43%  
  1990-2019 181% 183% 184% 156% 154%  

Florida QCEW wages rose fastest during 2010-19, but FLS wages rose fastest 1990-99

Florida QCEW wages rose fastest during 2010-19, but FLS wages rose fastest 1990-99
  Weekly wages   Hourly Wages  
QCEW QCEW QCEW FLS FLS NAWS
All ag Crop&Live Crop&CropSup All Hired Crop&Live NAWS
1990 FLORIDA 236 248 231 6.00 5.38 5.19
1991 FLORIDA 241 258 236 6.28 5.68 5.41
1992 FLORIDA 259 275 255 6.38 5.91 5.64
1993 FLORIDA 258 272 253 6.62 6.02 5.15
1994 FLORIDA 263 281 258 7.04 6.33 4.67
1995 FLORIDA 272 292 268 7.48 6.54 5.46
1996 FLORIDA 280 301 275 7.30 6.36 5.46
1997 FLORIDA 301 322 297 7.47 6.77 5.85
1998 FLORIDA 320 339 316 7.91 7.13 6.04
1999 FLORIDA 334 347 331 8.21 7.25 5.83
2000 FLORIDA 342 357 338 8.49 7.66 6.77
2001 FLORIDA 341 356 334 8.54 7.69 7.04
2002 FLORIDA 347 364 340 8.69 7.78 6.60
2003 FLORIDA 355 372 346 9.14 8.18 7.23
2004 FLORIDA 385 399 377 9.04 8.07 7.78
2005 FLORIDA 398 411 389 9.46 8.56 6.86
2006 FLORIDA 427 437 418 9.38 8.56 8.26
2007 FLORIDA 423 435 411 9.73 8.82 7.70
2008 FLORIDA 419 439 404 10.06 9.08 8.68
2009 FLORIDA 405 429 390 10.42 9.20 8.60
2010 FLORIDA 423 446 411 10.67 9.50 9.16
2011 FLORIDA 440 464 428 10.92 9.54 10.23
2012 FLORIDA 467 487 455 10.97 9.97 9.49
2013 FLORIDA 485 502 472 11.60 10.26 9.03
2014 FLORIDA 500 514 485 11.18 10.19 9.55
2015 FLORIDA 537 551 522 11.76 10.70 10.24
2016 FLORIDA 551 567 535 12.21 11.12 9.48
2017 FLORIDA 574 587 559 12.61 11.29  
2018 FLORIDA 608 623 593 12.13 11.24  
2019 FLORIDA 628 641 614 12.58 11.71  
  1990-99 41% 40% 43% 37% 35% 12%
  2000-09 18% 20% 16% 23% 20% 27%
  2010-19 48% 44% 49% 18% 23%  
  1990-2019 166% 158% 166% 110% 118%  

OR and WA farm wages rose fastest between 1990-99 and 2010-19, and QCEW and FLS increases were similar except in 1990s

  Weekly wages   Hourly Wages  
QCEW QCEW QCEW FLS FLS NAWS
All ag Crop&Live Crop&CropSup All Hired Crop&Live NAWS
1990 PACIFIC 195 191 186 5.95 5.69 5.77
1991 PACIFIC 204 201 196 6.22 5.94 7.35
1992 PACIFIC 215 212 207 6.66 6.31 5.98
1993 PACIFIC 219 216 211 6.90 6.51 6.06
1994 PACIFIC 232 228 223 6.71 6.41 6.02
1995 PACIFIC 243 240 234 7.16 6.82 6.64
1996 PACIFIC 252 249 241 7.25 6.87 5.91
1997 PACIFIC 270 266 260 7.56 7.08 6.30
1998 PACIFIC 281 279 271 7.87 7.34 6.79
1999 PACIFIC 301 298 292 8.14 7.64 6.85
2000 PACIFIC 317 312 308 8.63 8.14 7.14
2001 PACIFIC 323 320 313 9.06 8.60 7.99
2002 PACIFIC 334 331 324 9.30 8.71 7.88
2003 PACIFIC 338 334 328 9.25 8.73 8.31
2004 PACIFIC 350 345 340 9.61 9.03 8.18
2005 PACIFIC 363 359 353 9.62 9.01 8.80
2006 PACIFIC 383 378 373 10.37 9.77 9.21
2007 PACIFIC 403 399 393 10.69 9.94 9.91
2008 PACIFIC 418 415 406 10.69 10.12 10.62
2009 PACIFIC 420 414 408 11.56 10.85 10.17
2010 PACIFIC 419 416 407 11.31 10.60 11.48
2011 PACIFIC 437 433 425 11.58 10.92 9.75
2012 PACIFIC 457 453 447 12.45 12.00 9.72
2013 PACIFIC 472 470 461 12.47 11.87 10.89
2014 PACIFIC 495 493 484 12.96 12.42 11.22
2015 PACIFIC 516 515 505 13.20 12.69 10.93
2016 PACIFIC 539 538 529 13.90 13.38 11.31
2017 PACIFIC 571 569 561 14.64 14.12  
2018 PACIFIC 596 594 587 15.62 15.03  
2019 PACIFIC 623 626 615 16.37 15.83  
  1990-99 55% 56% 57% 37% 34% 19%
  2000-09 32% 33% 33% 34% 33% 43%
  2010-19 49% 50% 51% 45% 49%  
  1990-2019 220% 228% 230% 175% 178%  

AL, GA, and SC FLS farm wages rose faster than QCEW between 1990-99, and slower during 2010-19

  Weekly wages   Hourly Wages
QCEW QCEW QCEW FLS FLS
All ag Crop&Live Crop&CropSup All Hired Crop&Live
1990 SOUTHEAST 258 263 230 4.82 4.46
1991 SOUTHEAST 265 270 235 5.22 4.91
1992 SOUTHEAST 276 280 250 5.49 5.04
1993 SOUTHEAST 282 285 258 5.76 5.43
1994 SOUTHEAST 291 294 270 6.11 5.66
1995 SOUTHEAST 298 300 278 5.77 5.40
1996 SOUTHEAST 311 311 291 6.33 5.92
1997 SOUTHEAST 323 326 301 6.81 6.30
1998 SOUTHEAST 341 344 317 6.58 6.30
1999 SOUTHEAST 358 361 335 7.00 6.72
2000 SOUTHEAST 363 361 337 7.25 6.83
2001 SOUTHEAST 377 373 349 7.80 7.28
2002 SOUTHEAST 381 379 349 8.03 7.49
2003 SOUTHEAST 396 392 366 8.41 7.88
2004 SOUTHEAST 407 405 374 8.53 8.07
2005 SOUTHEAST 436 439 403 8.84 8.37
2006 SOUTHEAST 450 456 414 9.05 8.51
2007 SOUTHEAST 474 482 436 9.15 8.53
2008 SOUTHEAST 481 489 439 9.27 8.77
2009 SOUTHEAST 478 481 432 9.48 9.11
2010 SOUTHEAST 486 485 438 9.69 9.12
2011 SOUTHEAST 514 512 469 9.97 9.39
2012 SOUTHEAST 528 520 492 10.31 9.78
2013 SOUTHEAST 538 527 502 10.77 10.00
2014 SOUTHEAST 564 555 524 10.76 10.00
2015 SOUTHEAST 586 583 536 11.09 10.59
2016 SOUTHEAST 610 605 564 11.16 10.62
2017 SOUTHEAST 639 633 596 11.55 10.95
2018 SOUTHEAST 654 649 612 11.96 11.13
2019 SOUTHEAST 679 677 639 12.38 11.71
  1990-99 39% 37% 46% 45% 51%
  2000-09 32% 33% 28% 31% 33%
  2010-19 40% 39% 46% 28% 28%
  1990-2019 164% 158% 178% 157% 163%  

Subscribe via Email

Click here to subscribe to Rural Migration News via email.