Skip to navigation

Skip to main content


April 1997, Volume 3, Number 2

Farm Workers: Wages and Pesticides

The New York Times on March 31, 1997 reported that farm wages and working conditions have improved since the 1960 TV documentary "Harvest of Shame," but that wages and earnings have dropped sharply since immigration reforms in 1986, mostly because of an oversupply of immigrant workers. One Salinas worker reported that he could earn $450 to $500 in a good week in the 1980s, but only $300 per week in the 1990s.

There are several measures of farm wages and earnings. The USDA measures gross average hourly earnings as reported by farmers (but not workers employed by labor contractors) while DOL's NAWS asks crop workers directly what they earn (see Two Views of Farm Workers below).

On March 1, 1997, the wage in California rose to $5 per hour as a result of Proposition 210. On September 1, 1997, the minimum wage will rise to $5.15 per hour and on March 1, 1998, to $5.75 per hour in California.

Some farm employer representatives worry that the UFW will take credit for the higher minimum wages. Others note that the higher minimum wages might make it easier for unionized employers to compete with non-union employers who must now pay higher wages.

An article in the November-December 1996 California Agriculture found that workers were evenly split between those who favored piece rate and hourly wages. Young male workers often prefer piece rate wages, since fast work can give them high hourly and daily pay. Growers who hire diverse workers with minimal screening also prefer piece rates, since they keep the cost of the job constant whether the work is done by fast or slow workers.

However, many piece rate workers complained that growers want "piece rate effort for hourly pay," and that, to establish a fast pace of work, they sometimes require workers to pick for a day or two, and then set a piece rate so that the average worker earns $5 or $6 hourly--in other words, the grower adjusts the piece rate to achieve an target hourly wage. In such situations, workers soon learn that more effort can mean lower piece rate wages.

Second, many workers said they preferred to work for hourly wages because the pace of work tends to be slower and there are more often fringe benefits associated with hourly wage work.

Mechanization. The California olive industry is developing a $100,000 mechanical harvesting device to reduce the $20 million annual cost of hand-picking 31,000 acres of olives. Harvesting often accounts for half of the cost of producing olives and mechanical harvesting could reduce harvesting costs by 50 to 70 percent .

The device under construction abandons previous efforts to shake trees or limbs after chemical abcission agents have loosened the fruit, and instead relies on flexible moving fingers to remove the fruit as they move through the tree canopy.

To use the new harvester most efficiently, olive trees will have to be pruned in a straight up or hedge row fashion so that the harvester can drive through the trees without stopping.

Pesticides. The number of farm workers who got ill because of pesticides was 109 in 1994, down from the average 149 each year between 1989 and 1994, and 280 per year between 1982 and 1988. The California pesticide illness report is available at

California has 23,000 commercial pesticide applicators, 40,000 growers who use restricted pesticides and 750,000 field workers who work in treated fields.

California table grapes were worth a record $941 in 1996, with growers obtaining an average $14 per 22-pound box of grapes. Per capita US consumption reached eight pounds per person.

According to academic experts, the California winegrape industry lags behind those in Italy and Australia in mechanization, especially in the use of mechanical pruners.

Steven Greenhouse, "US Surveys find farm worker pay down for 20 years," New York Times, March 31, 1997. Billikopf, Gregory, "Crew workers split between hourly and piece-rate pay," California Agriculture, November-December 1996.