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July 2019, Volume 25, Number 3

COA: Hired Farm Labor

Expenses. The Census of Agriculture collected data from farm employers on their hired farm labor in 2017. Section 30 of the questionnaire included Q10 that asked about expenditures for: (1) directly hired labor, including employer payroll taxes and the cost of any employer-provided benefits; and (2) contract labor, wages as well as contractor payroll taxes, work-related benefits, and other contractor expenses and profits.

The data highlight three major items: most farms do not hire workers, most direct hire and contract farm labor expenses are paid by large farms, and California's share of US contract labor expenses is double its share of US direct-hire labor expenses.

First, the COA defines a farm as a place that normally sells $1,000 or more worth of farm commodities. Most US and California farms are small hobby or retirement operations; most farm output is from the largest five percent of farms. A quarter of US farms, and 42 percent of California farms, reported expenses for farm labor in 2017.

Second, most farm labor expenses are paid by the 10,000 largest US farm employers and the largest 4,000 California farm employers. The largest 10,000 US farm employers accounted for 52 percent of US direct-hire labor expenses, and the largest 2,600 California farm employers accounted for 74 percent of the state's direct-hire labor expenses.

Contract labor expenses are more concentrated on large farms. The largest 10,000 US farms with contract labor expenses accounted for 72 percent of total contract labor expenses, and the largest 4,400 California farms with contract labor expenses accounted for 90 percent. Many large farm employers have high direct and contract labor expenses.

Third, California accounts for 22 percent of US direct-hire labor expenses but 51 percent of contract labor expenses. The COA defines a large direct-hire farm as one with $500,000 or more in expenses. California had a quarter of large farm employers in 2017, and the state's large farms paid a third of the direct-hire labor expenses incurred by large US farm employers.

The COA defines a large contract farm as one with $100,000 or more in expenses. California had 44 percent of large contract farms in 2017, and the state's large contract farms paid two-thirds of contract labor expenses incurred by large contract farms.

A fourth of the two million US farms reported expenses for farm labor. In Table 4 of the US COA report, 513,100 US farms reported $31.6 billion in farm labor expenses for directly hired workers, and 195,800 reported $7.6 billion in contract labor expenses.

The 10,000 US farms that each had farm labor expenses of $500,000 or more collectively paid $16.5 billion or 52 percent of US farm labor expenses. Similarly, almost 10,000 US farms had contract labor expenses of $100,000 or more, and they collectively accounted for $5.5 billion or 72 percent of US contract labor expenses.

Over 40 percent of California's 70,000 farms, some 30,400, reported $7 billion in expenses for farm labor in Table 4 of the state COA report. The number of California farms reporting hired labor expenses fell 12 percent from 2012, while farm labor expenses rose almost 20 percent. Five counties accounted for 37 percent of the state's farm labor expenses: Monterey, Fresno, Tulare, Santa Barbara and Kern. The 2,600 California farms that each had $500,000 or more in direct-hire labor expenses paid a total of $5.2 billion or 74 percent of the total.

Some 23,600 California farms reported a total of $3.9 billion in contract labor expenses, including half in four counties: Fresno, Monterey, Kern and Tulare. The 4,400 California farms that had contract labor expenses of $100,000 or more collectively accounted for $3.5 billion or 90 percent of the state's contract labor expenses.

Workers Hired. The Census of Agriculture collected data on hired farm labor for 2017. Section 29 of the questionnaire asked farm operators to report how many directly hired workers worked on their operation for more and less than 150 days. Farmers also reported the total number of migrant workers, defined as foreign and domestic and direct hire and contract workers who could not return to their usual home because of work on the responding farm.

The direct-hire farm worker data highlight three items: most directly hired workers were on farms with 10 or more workers, most are employed on the responding farm less than 150 days, and California has 20 percent of the largest US farm employers.

First, a quarter of US farms reported hiring workers directly, and they hired an average 4.4 workers. However, the 35,500 US farms that hired 10 or more workers hired an average 37 workers and accounted for almost 60 percent of all workers hired. In California, the 6,400 farms that hired 10 or more workers employed an average 48 workers and accounted for over 80 percent of the state's directly hired workers. California had a sixth of all directly hired workers and a quarter of those hired by large farm employers.

Second, two-thirds of US directly hired workers, and half of California directly hired workers, were employed on the responding farm for less than 150 days. California's large farm employers hired about the same number of more and less than 150 day workers, almost 150,000 for more and 150,000 for less than 150 days. US farm employers hired 130 less-than-150-day workers for every 100 more-than-150-day workers.

Third, California had almost 20 percent of US farms that hired 10 or more workers, and accounted for a quarter of the workers hired by large farms. California was most important among large farms that hired 10 or more workers for 150 days or more, accounting for a quarter of such large farms and 30 percent of the workers hired on these farms.

Hired farm labor data are reported in Table 7 of the COA. Some 513,100 US farm employers reported 2.4 million workers directly hired. The 35,500 US farms that hired 10 or more workers directly, less than seven percent of all farm employers, hired almost 1.3 million workers or 52 percent of the total.

Some 239,100 US farms reported hiring 974,000 workers for 150 days or more, including 15,300 farms that hired 10 or more workers for 150 days or more and a total of 488,200 or half of all direct hires. Some 381,600 US farms hired 1.4 million workers for less than 150 days, including 18,700 that hired 647,100 workers or 46 percent of the total.

Fewer than 20,000 US farms hired over half of US farm workers. Note that farmers report the workers they hired, not unique individuals who worked in agriculture, so a worker employed on two farms would be counted twice in COA workers-hired data.

Some 22,100 US farms reported 399,000 migrant workers. These farms comprised two groups: 18,800 US farms hired some workers directly and reported 357,800 migrants, while 3,200 US farms used only contract labor and reported 41,100 migrant workers.

The 30,400 California farm employers reported 377,600 million workers hired directly in 2017. The 6,400 California farms that hired 10 or more workers directly, 21 percent of all farm employers, hired almost 308,600 workers or 82 percent of the total.

Some 18,400 California farms reported hiring 187,900 workers for 150 days or more, including 3,500 farms that hired 10 or more workers for 150 days or more and hired a total of 146,800 or 78 percent of all directly hired more than 150-day workers. Some 20,500 California farms hired 189,700 workers for less than 150 days, including 3,300 that hired 146,700 workers or 77 percent of the total.

There was remarkable similarity in the number of large California farms that hired workers for more and less than 150 days: some 3,500 large California employers hired three-fourths of the more-than-150-day workers and three-fourths of the less-than-150-day workers.

Some 3,500 California farms reported 105,100 migrant workers. These farms comprised two groups: the 2,600 California farms that hired some workers directly reported 86,200 migrants, while 950 California farms that used only contract labor reported 18,900 migrant workers.