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July 2012, Volume 18, Number 3

How Many Farm Workers? ARMS

There are several farm worker concepts and sources of data on hired farm workers. The three major concepts are average employment, peak and trough employment, and individuals employed for wages in agriculture sometime during a year. The major sources of data are employers, households and individuals, and administrative data.

USDA's NASS Farm Labor Survey has since 1910 asked farm employers to report the number of hired workers on their farms during the week that includes the 12th of the month. In recent years, they reported an average of about 760,000 directly hired workers, including three-fourths expected to be employed on the responding farm at least 150 days. In addition, almost 300,000 workers were brought to farms by agricultural service firms such as custom harvesters or farm labor contractors, so that USDA estimates an average 1.1 million hired workers on US farms. Peak employment is over 1.2 million in July, while trough employment is 800,000 in January.

The Current Population Survey interviews about 55,000 households each month to generate, inter alia, the unemployment rate. The CPS found an average 755,000 farm workers in 2010. The CPS reported that over 60 percent of farm workers were employed in crops, 60 percent were in metro counties (almost all in California and Washington), and over 35 percent were in the southwestern states.

The CPS divides farm workers into laborers, 83 percent, and managers and supervisors, 17 percent. Almost 85 percent of both groups are male, but laborers are younger, more Hispanic and foreign born, and have less education. The unemployment rate among farm laborers was almost 18 percent in 2010, second only to the 20 percent rate of workers with construction-related occupations. The CPS reported that average hourly earnings for nonsupervisory workers in the private sector were $19 in 2010. Farm laborers averaged $10.22, which is 54 percent of $19.

The US Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey is the only federal survey that regularly determines the legal status of persons interviewed. It finds that about half of the hired workers on crop farms have been unauthorized since the mid-1990s.

The NAWS reports that about three-fourths of crop workers were born in Mexico and that only a quarter are migrants, defined as moving over 75 miles from a usual home to do crop work. Few migrants follow-the-crops inside the US, only five percent. Instead, most are shuttle migrants, meaning that they move from Mexico to a single US location to do farm work.

The Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages provides data on workers reported by employers when paying their UI taxes; DOL estimated that 92 percent of the average 1.2 million wage and salary farm workers were covered by UI in 2009. The US had a total of nine million establishments (an employer with multiple locations can be several establishments) with an average 129 million employees in 2009.

There were 95,000 farm establishments reporting an average 1.1 million employees in 2009, including 42,500 crop establishments reporting 531,000 employees, that is, about 45 percent of farm employers and employment was reported involved crop farmers. Fruits, 183,000; vegetables, 95,000; and horticulture, 150,000; accounted for over 80 percent of crop employment. Almost 18,000 establishments provided support services for crop production. They had an average 280,000 employees (25 percent of employment), suggesting that crop agriculture accounted for over 60 percent of total wage and salary farm employment.

The 6,700 US dairy establishments covered by UI hired an average 86,200 workers, almost 40 percent of the total 226,000 employed in livestock.

Employers also report the total number of workers hired. In California, there were 2.75 individuals associated with each year-round equivalent job in 2001. If there were two individuals associated with each year-round equivalent job in US agriculture, there were 2.4 million farm workers in 2009, based on 1.2 million average employment.

ARMS. The Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) collects data on a sample of US farms each year, since 2009 it includes the hours worked on the farm by farm operators, spouses, and hired workers. ( ARMS data show that hired workers provide three-fourths of the hours worked on farms producing high-value FVH commodities, half of the hours worked on dairy farms, and less than a quarter of the hours worked on field crop and other animal agriculture operations.

In 2009-10, the 150,000 FVH farms were about seven percent of the 2.2 million US farms, but they accounted for half of the hours worked by hired farm workers and half of farm labor expenditures. By contrast, field crop farms that produce wheat, corn and other grains were almost 40 percent of all farms, but they accounted for only 20 percent of hired labor hours and expenses. Animal agriculture dominates on 55 percent of US farms, and these farms account for 30 percent of hired labor hours and expenses.

The most common US farm produces beef and general livestock. There were 1.1 million such farms in 2009-10, half of all farms, and they accounted for an eighth of hired labor hours and expenses. By contrast, only two percent of US farms are dairies, but they also account for an eighth of hired worker hours and expenses.

Dependence on hired workers rises with farm sales. Farms that sell at least $1 million worth of commodities a year have hired workers contributing 97 percent of hours on FVH farms, 87 percent on large dairies, and 75 percent throughout animal agriculture.
Khan, Akhtar, Philip Martin and Phil Hardiman. 2004. Expanded production of labor-intensive crops increases agricultural employment. California Agriculture. January-March. Pp35-39.

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