Farm labor floats to the top of all fresh produce concerns, and thus any report that takes a comprehensive look at the issue is worth exploring.
The United States Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service has issued a farm labor report that has a variety of insights on the evolution of farm labor in the U.S.
Here are some excerpts from the report:
According to data from the 2017 Census of Agriculture, wages and salaries plus contract labor costs represented 12 percent of production expenses for all farms, but as much as 43 percent on greenhouse and nursery operations, and 39 percent for fruits and tree nuts.
Although farm wages are rising in nominal and real terms, the impact of these rising costs on farmers’ incomes have been offset by rising productivity and/or output prices. As a result, labor costs as a share of gross cash income do not show an upward trend for the industry as a whole over the past 20 years. For all farms, labor costs (including contract labor, and cash fringe benefit costs) averaged 10.4 percent of gross cash income during 2016-18, compared to 10.6-10.7 percent for 1996-98.
However, these trends in labor cost shares differ by commodity. Labor cost shares have actually fallen slightly over the past 20 years for the more labor-intensive fruit and vegetable sectors, although they appear to be trending upwards again in the past few years.
One of the clearest indicators of the scarcity of farm labor is the fact that the number of H-2A positions requested and approved has increased fivefold in the past 13 years, from just over 48,000 positions certified in fiscal 2005 to nearly 243,000 in fiscal 2018. The average duration of an H-2A certification in fiscal 2018 was 5.3 months, implying that the 243,000 positions certified represented approximately 108,000 full-year equivalents.
The share of hired crop farmworkers who were not legally authorized to work in the United States grew from roughly 14 percent in 1989-91 to almost 55 percent in 1999-2001; in recent years it has been just under 50 percent.
More than 80 percent of hired crop farmworkers are not migrant workers, but are considered settled, meaning they work at a single location within 75 miles of their home. This number is up from 41 percent in 1996-98, reflecting a profound change in the nature of the crop farm workforce.
Among the small share of remaining migrant workers, the largest group are “shuttlers,” who work at a single farm location more than 75 miles from home, and may cross an international border to get there. They made up about 10 percent of hired crop farmworkers in 2014-16, down from about 24 percent in 1996-98.
More common in the past, the “follow the crop” migrant farmworker, who moves from State to State working on different crops as the seasons advance, is now a relative rarity. These workers made up just 5 percent of those surveyed by the NAWS in 2014-16, down from a high of 14 percent in 1992-94.
Legal immigration status is difficult to measure: not many surveys ask the question, and unauthorized respondents may be reluctant to answer truthfully if asked. Yet the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) is believed to provide high-quality data on farmworkers’ legal immigration status, using trained and trusted enumerators who conduct face-to-face interviews with workers at their job sites, and with their employer’s permission. NAWS also queries workers on their inter- and intranational migration patterns.
One limitation of the NAWS, however is that it excludes the growing number of H-2A workers, as well as all hired livestock workers.
TK: The compilation of data is helpful but uneven because H-2A data is not incorporated in some of the surveys. Don’t look for great visionary farm labor solutions in the USDA report, of course. But there is data that carefully paints the complicated picture of farm labor in the U.S.