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July 2010, Volume 16, Number 3

Farm Labor Data: COA, NASS, QCEW

Farm employers report their expenditures for hired labor and the number of workers they hire directly in the Census of Agriculture (COA) for years ending in 2 and 7. The 2007 COA reported total farm labor expenditures of $26.4 billion, including $4.5 billion for contract labor. Farmers reported hiring 2.6 million workers, including 35 percent or 910,000 for 150 days or more on their farms [the same worker reported by two farmers is counted twice in COA data].

Farmers do not report to the COA how many workers, contractors and other intermediaries brought to their farms. However, if total farm 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. Similar calculations using 2002 data also generate 1.2 million FTE jobs.

USDA's NASS conducts a quarterly survey of farm employers to obtain employment and earnings data. No survey was conducted in January 2007, but in April 2007 employers reported 736,000 directly hired workers and 253,000 agricultural service workers (898,000), in July 2007 they reported 843,000 and 363,000 (1.2 million), and in October 2007 they reported 806,000 and 316,000 (1.1 million), suggesting average employment of over a million.

The Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages provides another source of employment and earnings data on farm workers. Between 2001 and 2008, employment in NAICS 11, agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, averaged 1.2 million and ranged from a low of a million in January to a high of 1.3 million in July. The number of agricultural establishments paying the UI taxes from which QCEW data are drawn fell from about 100,000 in 2001-02 to 95,000 in 2007-08, while total UI-covered wages rose from $24 billion to $30 billion, 25 percent. Average weekly earnings rose from $400 a week to $500 a week.

The average employment of workers in NAICS 111, crop production, fell five percent from 564,000 in 2001 to 536,000 in 2008. The number of crop establishments reporting UI taxes fell 11 percent, from 47,000 to 42,000, while the wages paid by crop establishments rose from $11 billion to $13 billion, 18 percent.

By contrast, average employment in NAICS 115115, farm labor contractors and crew leaders, rose from 145,000 in 2001 to 159,000 in 2008, up 10 percent. The number of FLC establishments declined 10 percent from 2,450 to 2,200, and FLC-paid wages rose from $1.7 billion to $2.6 billion, up 53 percent. FLCs are over half of the employment in NAICS 1151, support activities for crop production, where employment rose from 175,000 in 2001 to 291,000 in 2008. This means that almost all of the employment increase in support activities for crop production was with FLCs.

Four major commodities account for most farm labor expenditures: fruits and nuts, vegetables and melons, horticultural specialties such as greenhouse and nursery products, and dairy. Average employment in fruits and nuts, NAICS 1113, rose from 162,000 in 2001 to 178,000 in 2008, up 10 percent. The number of establishments fell from 14,000 in 2001 to 11,800 in 2008, and wages paid rose from $2.7 billion to $3.7 billion, up 37 percent. Average employment in vegetables and melons, NAICS 1112, fell from 98,000 in 2001 to 92,000 in 2008, down six percent. The number of establishments fell from 4,900 in 2001 to 4,200 in 2008, and wages paid rose from $1.7 billion to $2.3 billion, up 35 percent.

Average employment in NAICS 1114, greenhouse and nursery production fell from 175,000 in 2001 to 166,000 in 2008, down five percent. The number of establishments rose from 9,000 in 2001 to 9,200 in 2008, and wages paid rose from $3.8 billion to $4.3 billion, up 13 percent. Average employment in NAICS 11212, dairy cattle and milk production, rose from 64,000 in 2001 to 88,000 in 2008, up 38 percent. The number of establishments rose from 5,900 in 2001 to 6,700 in 2008, and wages paid rose from $1.3 billion to $2.3 billion, up 77 percent.

The QCEW data show stable overall employment in agriculture at about 1.2 million, a relatively stable number of farm establishments, almost 100,000, and rising average weekly wages, up 20 percent between 2001 and 2008 to $500 a week. For all goods-producing industries, average employment fell from 25 million to 22 million between 2001 and 2008, the number of establishments was stable at 1.3 million, and average weekly earnings rose about 25 percent, from $800 a week to $1,000 a week.

COA data are available at the county level, while QCEW data are available only for states and metro areas. However, QCEW data are available quarterly, which can help to chart trends for detailed NAICS codes.

Federal law requires farm employers who pay cash wages of $20,000 or more for agricultural labor in any calendar quarter in the current or preceding calendar year, or who employed 10 or more workers on at least one day in each of 20 different weeks in the current or immediately preceding calendar year. Four major farm states cover almost all farm workers: California, New York, Texas, and Washington, while Florida and Minnesota cover most farm workers. Since 1995, states have been allowed to exclude H-2A workers from UI coverage.

DOL estimated in its Employment and Wages, Annual Averages 2008 report that 88 percent of the average 1.3 million wage and salary agricultural workers were covered by the 20-10 rule or state UI laws and included in the QCEW data. (

Earnings. The ratio of average farm to nonfarm earnings was about 50 percent in the 1980s and has been almost 60 percent since 2000; one reason is that many nonfarm workers have substituted employer-paid health insurance and other benefits for wage increases. The ratio of average farm earnings to the federal minimum wage fell from 85 percent in the early 1980s to 55-65 percent since the mid-1990s.

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