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Changes in US Farm Labor: 1948-2017

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March 29, 2022

The share of workers employed in agriculture falls as incomes rise

Countries with higher incomes per capita have a smaller share of their workforces employed in agriculture. Most countries with more than 40 percent of their workforces employed in agriculture are in Africa and have per capita incomes of less than $5,000.

The share of agriculture in GDP declines as per capita incomes increase

In the US, the share of employment in agriculture fell from a third in 1910 to two percent by 2017, while the population rose from 92 million to 325 million. The value of US farm output, adjusted for inflation, tripled between 1948 and 2017, while employment in agriculture fell by 75 percent, a huge increase in productivity made possible by machines, biological innovations, and irrigation as well as farmers purchasing more materials and services from off-farm suppliers.

The share of US employment in agriculture fell from 33% to 2% in the 20^(th) century

Labor. Employment in US agriculture includes farmers and their unpaid family members and hired workers. The average employment of farmers and their unpaid family members fell from 7.4 million to 0.9 million between 1948 and 2017, while the average employment of hired workers fell from 2.3 million to 0.8 million. More unique individuals work for wages on farms each year due to seasonality and the turnover of hired workers; the ratio of unique workers to average employment ranges from two to three, suggesting 1.6 million to 2.4 million unique farm workers.

Within the farm workforce, the share of hours worked by farmers and their unpaid family members fell from 70 percent in 1938 to 50 percent in 2017. Many farm operators have nonfarm jobs, and some unpaid family members work only seasonally on farms, while hired farm workers work an average of 1,500 hours a year. By 2017, the average 900,000 farmers and their unpaid family members worked as many hours on farms as the 800,000 hired farm workers.

Hired workers and farmers and their families each contributed half of all farm hours worked in 2017

Reliance on hired labor varies by commodity, area, and size of farm. Large farms that produce fruits and vegetables in California and other western states and in Florida and other eastern states are most reliant on hired farm workers.

Hired workers contribute over half of the hours worked in CA, FL, and WA ag

Fewer and larger farms account for most US farm output, and the principal operators of farms are better educated. A higher share of principal farm operators had college degrees in 2016 than all US household heads, and a higher share had some college. Among farm operators, levels of education rise with farm size, so that the higher the farm’s sales, the more likely the farm operator has a college education.

Principal operators of farms were better educated than all US household heads in 2016

Most farm work is done by young men. However, the share of all hours worked on US farms by men fell from 90 percent to 80 percent between 1950 and 2017, and the share contributed by men aged 18 to 44 fell from 47 percent to 35 percent.

The share of farm work hours contributed by workers 45 and older is increasing

Total hours-worked shares by gender and age groups (in percent), 1950 and 2017
Year Gender Age groups Total
14–15 16–17 18–24 25–34 35–44 45–54 55–64 65 and older
1950 Male 1.30 2.30 13.40 15.80 17.50 16.70 14.40 8.20 89.70
Female 0.10 0.30 0.90 1.70 2.60 2.20 1.70 0.80 10.30
2017 Male 0.00 0.40 6.40 14.20 15.40 17.00 17.80 9.80 81.00
Female 0.00 0.20 1.90 3.30 4.10 4.20 3.80 1.60 19.00

The NAWS, which interviews only non-H-2A hired workers employed on US crop farms, finds similar trends, viz, an aging and more experienced workforce that includes a third women and is half unauthorized. During the 1990s, young and unauthorized Mexican men replaced US-born crop workers. The arrival of unauthorized Mexican newcomer men slowed after the 2008-09 recession, which explains why the non-H-2A crop workforce is getting older, includes more women, and has more US farm work experience.

The NAWS finds an aging, unauthorized, and mostly Mexican-born male hired crop workforce

Demographic characteristics of hired/contracted crop farm workers in National Agricultural Workers Survey, 1989–2016
  FY1989–91 FY2001–03 FY2014–16
Unweighted sample size 7,244 10,057 8,165
Average age 33 33 38
  Percent 14–20 16 15 8
  Percent 21–44 66 67 59
  Percent 45+ 18 19 33
Percent female 27 24 32
Average years of farmwork experience 10 10 14
  Percent 0–2 18 29 18
  Percent 3–15 62 47 46
  Percent 16+ 21 24 36
Average years of education 7.7 7.4 8.4
  Percent less than 9th grade 53 57 46
  Percent 9–12th 41 37 43
  Percent > high school 6 6 11
Legal status1  
  Percent U.S. born 41 26 27
  Percent foreign born - SAW 28 9 8
  Percent foreign born - other authorized 17 15 18
  Percent foreign born - unauthorized 14 50 48
Country of birth2  
Percent U.S. (including Puerto Rico) 40 26 26
  Percent Mexico 54 72 67
  Percent other 6 3 6
Immigrated to U.S. less than 2 years ago (for immigrants only) 4 16 3
1 “U.S. born” includes those born in Puerto Rico
2 Includes a small number of cases with missing legal status

A quarter of US crop workers were born in the US, while three-fourths were born abroad. Almost all foreign-born crop workers were born in Mexico, and almost all H-2A workers were born in Mexico.

Over 2/3 of US crop workers were born in Mexico

Foreign-born crop workers have relatively little education, an average seven years. Education levels of US-born crop workers rose by two years since 2000, while years of schooling for foreign-born crop workers rose by one year.

The average educational level of hired crop workers rose over the past two decades, but more for US-born than for Mexican-born workers

Farm operators are buying more nonfarm services, including contracted labor. When a nonfarm labor contractor brings workers to farms, USDA considers payments to the contractor to be purchasing contract services. USDA surveys only farm operators, not nonfarm businesses that bring workers to farms, which means that USDA collects data on what farmers pay for contract labor, but not on contract labor businesses and their employees.

The share of all purchased services rose over time, and contracted labor services were about 10 percent of all purchased services.

Farm wages are lower than nonfarm wages. The ratio of the average annual wages and salaries of hired farm to nonfarm workers was less than 40 percent in the 1950s, when 20 percent of US farm workers were Mexican Braceros, rose to 55 percent during the 2008-09 recession when many nonfarm workers accepted wage cuts to retain their jobs and health and other benefits, and has fluctuated between 55 and 60 percent since.

The ratio of farm to nonfarm wages was lowest in the 1950s and peaked in 2008-09

Farm operators, in contrast to hired workers, have household incomes that are higher than those of nonfarm households.

Farm household incomes were 50% higher than nonfarm household incomes in 2013-14


Wang, Sun Ling, Robert Hoppe, Thomas Hertz, and Shicong Xu. 2022. Farm Labor, Human Capital, and Agricultural Productivity in the United States. ERS 302.

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