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July 2011, Volume 17, Number 3

California Farm Labor: 50 Years

There have been enormous changes in California agriculture and farm labor issues over the past half century. Three stand out. First is the expansion of especially fruit, vegetable, and horticulture (FVH) commodity production, enabling California's share of US farm sales, and the share of California farm sales from FVH crops, to increase. In 2009, California accounted for an eighth of US farm sales, and two-thirds of California's farm sales were from FVH crops.

The expansion of irrigated agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley, and the shift of citrus and dairy into the San Joaquin Valley, meant that this region replaced southern California as the locus of the state's farm production. Los Angeles county was the number one US farm county in 1950; Fresno county is number one today.

Second, despite worries of labor shortages, sufficient farm labor was generally available to support California's expanding FVH agriculture. There were major worries in the early 1960s when the Bracero program ended, which prompted rising farm wages and a wave of mechanization symbolized by precision planters and herbicides, bulk bins in the fields, and the mechanical tomato harvester.

By 1979, when the federal minimum wage was $2.90 an hour, the general labor wage in UFW contracts was $3.75 an hour. In negotiations that year, the UFW demanded an increase to $5.25 an hour, and persuaded major vegetable growers to agree to this wage. However, rising unauthorized migration combined with the changing structure of agriculture (easy-to-boycott brand names avoided hiring farm workers) to push farm wages toward the California minimum wage, $8 an hour in 2011 (Note that average hourly earnings are often 10 to 20 percent higher than the minimum wage for two reasons. First, especially large employers often pay higher hourly wages to attract the best workers and second, the piece-rate wages paid when it is hard for employers to monitor workers must provide them an incentive to work fast).

Third, the farm labor market has a faster revolving door than ever before. Farm work has long attracted workers with few other US job options, but during the high-wage era of the 1960s and 1970s, the average tenure of workers employed in agriculture was lengthened as seasonality declined, benefits improved and many farmers issued employee handbooks and created job ladders.

Today, average tenure in the seasonal farm labor market is 10 years despite reduced seasonality and a higher share of workers employed in the almost year-round greenhouse and nursery and dairy sectors. If current trends continue, the farm workers of tomorrow will continue to grow up outside the US, since the children of seasonal farm workers educated in the US shun their parents' jobs.

How would immigration reforms that legalized unauthorized farm workers and made it easier for farm employers to hire H-2A guest workers affect FVH expansion, farm worker earnings, and farm worker tenure? First, the share of foreign-born workers would likely increase from the current 75 percent as unauthorized workers who become legal immigrants drift out of farm work and are replaced by H-2A guest workers.

Second, H-2A guest workers may be less "visible" than current farm workers if they are housed on the farms where they work or in nearby towns because most are likely to be in the US without their families. Third, farm worker tenure may increase if H-2A workers who cannot earn immigrant status return year-after-year.

Current indications suggest that farm employers will invest in housing and the recruitment of H-2A workers rather than raise wages and benefits to retain newly legalized farm workers. The H-2A program currently certifies about 100,000 farm jobs a year to be filled with H-2A workers, equivalent to 10 percent of long-season jobs on US farms.

During the 1950s and 1960s, federal and state water projects allowed the amount of irrigated land in California to expand by 50 percent, from about 6.5 million to 8.5 million acres, where it has remained. The expansion of irrigated agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley, and the shifting of citrus and dairy into the San Joaquin Valley, meant that the San Joaquin Valley replaced southern California as the locus of the state's farm production. The value of California agricultural production (nominal) rose from less than $5 billion in 1960 to $35 billion in recent years.

California accounted for less than eight percent of US farm sales in 1950; before the run-up in corn and grain prices in 2008, California's share of US farm sales topped 13 percent. California agriculture gained 60 percent of its sales from crops in 1950, and the crop share of farm sales rose to 75 percent over the following years. Within crops, labor-intensive FVH commodities displaced field crops such as cotton, rice and grains. Both acreage and yields of major fruits and vegetables roughly doubled between 1960 and 2010.

Johnston, Warren and Alex McCalla. 2004. Whither California Agriculture: Up, Down or Out? Some Thoughts about the Future. Giannini Foundation.