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April 2017, Volume 23, Number 2

California: Shortages, Workers

The Los Angeles Times on March 19, 2017 profiled the recruitment efforts of Napa's Silverado Farming in Stockton ( Hourly wages for Napa workers are typically $3 to $5 above the $11 to $12 of Stockton, reflecting the higher value of Napa grapes and higher living costs in Napa. Some Stockton workers commute two hours each way to Napa farm jobs every day.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the average annual wages of California farm workers were $30,300 in 2015, and they did not attract US workers into the fields. The Times questioned whether stepped up enforcement of immigration lows will open jobs for US workers by reviewing cases of farm employers trying to recruit US workers and having them not show up or soon quitting.

Many of the farmers producing lower-value grapes in the Lodi area are substituting machines for hand workers as wages rise. Lodi's Brad Goehring, who owns 500 acres of vineyards and farms 10,000 acres, is retrofitting vineyards to minimize the need for hand labor. Goehring says that vineyards that cannot be retrofitted for machines may see vines replaced by almonds.

Goehring's response illustrates the usual response to rising farm wages, labor-saving mechanization. Perhaps at $25-an-hour wages, US workers would flock to farm jobs, but as wages rise from their current levels of $12, farmers find ways to use machines to replace workers. Wages of $15-$17 an hour would likely be sufficient to eliminate most hand pruning, leaf pulling and harvesting jobs except in the high-value grapes produced in Napa and Sonoma counties.

The $30,300 wage cited by the Times is for a full-time worker employed 2,080 hours, the equivalent of $14.55 an hour. However, the average California farm worker who had his maximum earnings from agricultural employers in 2015 earned $17,500, just over half of the FTE average. Furthermore, the largest single group of farm workers were brought to farms by farm labor contractors, and they earned an average $10,000 in 2015, equivalent to 1,000 hours of work at $10 an hour.

The Sacramento Bee ( also discussed farm labor shortages on March 19, 2017, but emphasized fear in immigrant communities that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents would deport unauthorized foreigners. Earlimart, whose 8,700 residents are over 90 percent Hispanic and three-fourths of the 2,000 K-12 students have at least one family member employed in agriculture, is described as a community in fear of ICE.

Tulare's Tom Barcellos, a Trump supporter with 1,600 cows and 1,200 acres of land, believes that Trump will not increase immigration enforcement in agriculture unless he also makes it easier to hire guest workers. A 28-year old with DACA status reported earning $420 a week picking grapes, which is typical of farm workers holding seasonal jobs.

Workers. The average employment of hired workers in California agriculture (NAICS 11) has been rising, from less than 380,000 to over 420,000 over the past decade. In 2015, some 16,400 agricultural establishments reported hiring an average 421,300 workers, and paying them $12.8 billion or an average $30,300 a year.

Average employment represents 12 monthly snapshots of workers who are on the payroll during the period that includes the 12th of the month, but total wages are all wages paid to all workers, including those who were employed at other times during the month but not in the period that includes the 12th. Average annual pay is what a worker who was employed 2080 hours would earn; many farm workers are employed less than 2080 hours and earn less.

In 2006, 18,800 agricultural establishments reported hiring an average 378,900 workers and paying them $8.5 billion, that is, the number of establishments fell by 13 percent over the past decade, average employment rose by 11 percent, and total wages rose by 50 percent. Average annual pay rose by 36 percent.

Tabulating all Social Security Numbers reported by agricultural establishments finds 848,000 workers employed on California farms for wages in 2015, or two workers for each average or year-round-equivalent job. Many of these farm workers were not employed full-time; their average annual wages were $20,500 from farm and nonfarm jobs.

Primary farm workers are those whose maximum earnings from all California jobs were from an agricultural establishment, and 705,000 or 83 percent of all workers were primary farm workers. Their average annual pay was $17,500, meaning that workers with farm and nonfarm jobs who averaged $20,500 earned 17 percent more than those whose highest earnings were in agriculture.

Most primary farm workers, 402,000 or 57 percent, were brought to farms by nonfarm support services for crop production, where average annual pay was $13,500. The largest group of crop support workers was brought to farms by FLCs, 293,200 or 59 percent, and their average annual pay was $10,000.

Overall average pay for agriculture conceals significant variation by type of employer. Most workers are brought to farms by nonfarm employers, often FLCs, and they work seasonally and have relatively low average annual pay. For example, the 1,130 FLCs reported average employment of 141,400 in 2015 and total wages of $3.2 billion or $22,500 a year, but when these total wages are divided by the 293,200 workers whose highest earnings were with FLCs, the average annual wage drops to $10,000.

Matching. Several web sites offer to match workers with farm jobs. aims to match professionals with farm jobs, while matches farm workers with jobs. Some farmers said that provided an alternative to network hiring, as when current workers recruit friends and relatives.

California's minimum wage will be $15 an hour in 2022. Christopher Ranch, a large garlic producer with 800 year-round and 1,000 seasonal employees, in January 2017 announced that it would pay at least $15 an hour beginning in 2018.

Gilroy-based Uesugi Farms, which grows bell and chili peppers, napa cabbage, sweet corn and strawberries on 5,000 acres in California, Arizona and Mexico, hires 600 H-2A workers to help meet peak seasonal labor needs. Uesugi says that the US has the choice of importing food or farm workers.

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