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April 2009, Volume 15, Number 2

COA 2007: Labor

The Census of Agriculture for 2007 was released in February 2009. ( It reported that the 2.2 million US farms had sales of $297 billion in 2007, including $153 billion or 52 percent for livestock and $144 billion or 48 percent for crops.

The 57,000 farms that had annual sales of at least $1 million accounted for $176 billion or 60 percent of total sales; the 5,600 with annual sales of at least $5 million accounted for $83 billion or 28 percent of total sales.

Farm sales rose 50 percent between 2002 and 2007, from $200 billion to almost $300 billion, but farm labor expenditures rose only 23 percent, from $22 billion to $26 billion. Expenditures on fertilizers and gasoline almost doubled between 2002 and 2007. Hired farm labor fell from about 17 percent of farm production expenses in 2002 to 14 percent in 2007.

Labor. The number of farms reporting expenses for hired farm labor fell from 554,000 to 482,000 in 2007, and farm labor expenses became slightly more concentrated among the largest farm employersÑ the 36,000 farms that each paid $100,000 or more for hired labor accounted for 75 percent of total farm labor expenses. In 2002, there were 31,000 farms with labor expenses of $100,000 or more, and they accounted for 70 percent of the total.

Contract labor expenses rose almost 30 percent, faster than direct hire labor expenses, from $3.5 billion in 2002 to $4.5 billion in 2007. The 11,000 farms that had contract labor expenses of $50,000 or more in 2007 accounted for 77 percent of the total.

If total labor expenses of $26.4 billion are divided by the annual average earnings of US hired workers in 2007, $10.21 an hour, the estimated number of full-time equivalent (2000 hours) jobs was 1.2 million. Full-time equivalent farm employment estimated in this manner was same as in the 2002 COA, when average farm earnings were $8.80 an hour.

Crop farms had $14.2 billion in direct-hire labor expenses and $3.7 billion in contract labor expenditures, or 68 percent of total farm labor expenses. Livestock farms had $7.7 billion in direct-hire labor expenses and $0.8 billion in contract labor expenditures. This means that about 20 percent of total labor expenditures on crop farms, and 10 percent on livestock farms, went to contractors and other nonfarmers who brought workers to farms.

FVH Labor. The value of FVH commodities, fruits, berries and nuts, $18.6 billion, up from $13.8 billion in 2002; vegetables, potatoes and melons, $14.7 billion, up from $12.8 billion in 2002; and horticultural specialties such as greenhouse and nursery crops, $16.6 billion, up from $14.7 billion in 2002. Total FVH sales were $50 billion, 35 percent of crop sales, up from $41 billion.

As in 2002, FVH farms accounted for half of direct-hire labor expenses. Greenhouses and nurseries paid twice has much for labor as vegetable farms, about $4.7 billion compared $2.2 billion. Also similar to 2002 is the 70 percent share of contract labor expenses accounted for by FVH farms; fruit and nut farms accounted for 44 percent of total contract labor expenses.

The COA asks farmers who hire workers directly to report how long they were employed in 2007 on their farm. In 2007, farmers reported hiring 2.6 million workers directly, down 13 percent from three million in 2002. The share of these direct-hire workers employed on the responding farm for 150 days or more rose from 30 percent in 2002 to 35 percent in 2007.

In both 2002 and 2007, FHV farms accounted for a sixth of the farms that hired workers directly, and almost half of the workers hired. In both 2002 and 2007, fruit and nut farms accounted for a quarter of directly hired workers, greenhouses and nurseries and eighth, and vegetable farms a tenth.

Dairy farms accounted for 15 percent of direct-hire labor expenses in 2007, about the same as fruit and nut farms. The number of dairy farms reporting hired labor expenses fell 25 percent from 42,000 in 2002 to 31,000 in 2007. Direct-hire labor expenses rose almost 25 percent, from $2.2 billion in 2002 to $2.8 billion in 2007. Dairy farms reported hiring 176,000 workers in 2007, two-thirds for more than 150 days on their farms.

Almost half of the farms hiring workers in 2007 were beef ranches (129,000) and grain farms (104,000); they hired 339,000 and 300,000 workers, respectively.

States. Farm labor is concentrated by commodity, size, and areaÑlarge FVH farms in California and Florida account for a disproportionate share of farm labor expenses. The five states with the highest total farm labor expenses (direct and contract) accounted for 47 percent of the total in 2007, and the top 10 states accounted for 60 percent of the total.

The federal government allocates funds to provide services to eligible farm workers and their children in proportion to their share of the target population. Since each federal assistance program has a different definition of eligible farm worker, there is no single source of data to estimate their number and distribution.

Most federal farm worker assistance programs target migrant and seasonal workers employed on crop farms, even though the share of less-than-150-day workers employed in beef ranching, 77 percent of direct-hires, is higher than the less-than-150-day share of workers employed in fruits, vegetables, and greenhouses, although these workers may be members of the rancher's family.

If total crop labor expenses are divided by the average hourly earnings of field workers in 2007, $9.40 for the US and from $8.28 to $10.12 through out the US, the result is the number of hours worked on crop farms by state. For example, California's total labor expenses were $6.3 billion and the field worker wage averaged $9.56 an hour, generating 662 million hours of work on crop farms in 2007.

NAWS interviews workers employed on crop farms, and develops a work history for each worker interviewed. Multiplying worker-reported hours last week times the number of weeks workers were employed on farms the previous year generates an average of almost 1,700 hours worked the previous year, with a standard deviation of 200 hours and a low of 1,400 hours in the Midwest to a high of 2,000 hours in the Mid-Atlantic and southwestern states. The average in California was 1,400 hours.

If each state's crop hours are divided by these NAWS average hours, the result is a distribution of crop workers by state. For 2007, this method generates 1.2 million crop workers, including 38 percent in California, which had 28 percent of total farm labor expenses. The top five states had 60 percent of crop workers, compared to 47 percent of total farm labor expenses, and the top 10 states 70 percent (compared to 60 percent).

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