Farm Labor in the 2020s Demand, Supply, and Markets - Report
This report summarizes discussions of farm labor issues during conferences March 16-17, 2023 at UC-Davis. Researchers presented findings on the demand for farm workers, farm worker demographics and earnings, labor issues in the cannabis industry, and prospects for immigration reforms that were discussed by regulators and stakeholders in a 40-participant seminar. Similar presentations were discussed by over 100 participants in a public conference.
The agendas and photos are attached to this report. Presentations are posted at
https://gifford.ucdavis.edu/events/ Presenters and participants did not review or approve this report.
An average 1.5 million hired workers are employed in US agriculture, including 1.1 million or three-fourths in crops. Employment is 20 percent higher during the summer months than in the winter months and there is worker turnover, so 2.5 million unique persons work for wages on US farms each year. Some two million or 80 percent of these hired farm workers were born in Mexico, including 1.7 million who are settled in the US and 300,000 who are Mexican H-2A guest workers.
The 1.7 million settled Mexican-born US farm workers are half unauthorized, in their 40s and 50s, and have US-educated children who usually shun their parents’ seasonal farm jobs. The 300,000 H-2A workers who in their 20s and 30s are the fresh blood in the farm workforce. They are in the US an average 5-6 months, and almost half are brought to farms by farm labor contractors.
Farm worker earnings have traditionally been half of nonfarm wages, but the farm-nonfarm wage gap is narrowing as farm wages rise faster than nonfarm wages, so that farm worker earnings could be $22 an hour or two-thirds of nonfarm earnings of $34 an hour in 2030. There are many reasons for the narrowing farm-nonfarm wage gap, including a stable demand for farm workers and a shrinking supply, states raising their minimum wages and requiring overtime pay, and fewer health and other benefits in agriculture than in nonfarm jobs.
Rising farm labor costs are encouraging an MMI response: machines, migrants, and imports. Labor-saving machines can replace hand workers, while mechanical aids can make workers more productive. Migrant guest workers often fill the most difficult seasonal farm jobs, while imports of fresh fruits and vegetables from lower-wage countries allow trade to substitute for migration. MMI responses are likely to vary by commodity, from mostly mechanization in blueberries to mostly imports of mature-green tomatoes, melons, and asparagus. Apples, lettuce, and strawberries are in between, relying on migrants until changes in farming systems and improved machines allow full mechanization or imports.
H-2A workers fill about 15 percent of the year-round equivalent jobs in US crop agriculture and may soon surpass the peak 20 percent Bracero share of US crop workers. The H-2A share of crop workers is highest in the southeastern states, but the H-2A program is growing fastest in the Pacific coast states of CA, OR, and WA that have half of US crop workers. Nonfarm crop support businesses including FLCs bring 40 percent of US workers and 45 percent of H-2A workers to US crop farms.
Demand for Labor: Employment
California crop farm employment averages almost 400,000, but over 800,000 workers are employed on the state’s crop farms each year, including 35,000 H-2A workers. More workers are brought to California crop farms by nonfarm crop support service firms, an average 220,000, than are hired directly by farm operators, an average 160,000.
Rising farm labor costs, advances in robotics and AI, and venture capital have spawned numerous startups that aim to mechanize pre-harvest tasks such as planting, weeding, and thinning. Harvesting commodities mechanically presents biological, farming, and engineering challenges. Most fresh fruits and vegetables grow outdoors on plants or trees that vary in canopy and other characteristics, making it hard for machines to detect the desired items. Many are fragile, so mechanical arms must grasp and remove them without damaging the tree or plant and immature produce, and perform these detection, removal, and conveying tasks quickly. Machine picked produce may have to be handled differently after harvest, such as sorting and packing strawberries in a packinghouse rather than in the field.
Once-over machines harvest all fruits or vegetables in one pass through the field by cutting and lifting the plant, as in root vegetable crops such as potatoes; tree shakers remove all of the plums and nuts from trees. Fruits and vegetables from once-over harvesting machines are usually conveyed in bulk bins to packing or processing plants, where electronics can help to sort out marketable produce.
Selective harvesters that make multiple passes through a field are more complex and often require changes in plants and farming systems to operate efficiently. Fresh fuits employ the most hand workers, and machines must be positioned to pick apples, detect ripe apples, detach them, and convey them to bins quickly and without damage. Selective fruit harvesting machines work best on two-dimensional trees whose limbs are trained to grow on trellis wires, so that orchards resemble vineyards, or in strawberry fields with high yields and less-dense canopies to make it easier for cameras to detect ripe berries.
Mechanical aids make farm work easier and increase the productivity of hand workers. Fresh fruits and vegetables are over 90 percent water, and hydraulic platforms that replace ladders enable workers to pick apples and other tree fruits without positioning and climbing ladders. Robots that carry harvested grapes or strawberries to collection points reduce the time workers would spend carrying full lugs or trays. Conveyor belts that move in front of or behind harvest workers allow workers of similar ability to harvest leafy greens, strawberries, or melons faster. Mechanical aids are cheaper than harvesting machines and usually work with current plant varieties and farming systems, making it easier for farmers to justify the investment.
An alternative to mechanization is importing labor-intensive commodities from lower-wage countries. Over 60 percent of US fresh fruit, and 35 percent of US fresh vegetables, are imported. Half of the fresh fruit imports and three-fourths of the fresh vegetable imports are from Mexico, where farm worker wages are typically $15 to $20 a day versus $15 to $20 an hour in the US. Some 750,000 workers are employed on Mexican farms that export to the US; without produce imports, US crop employment would be higher.
Mexico has been exporting fruits and vegetables to the US for decades, but NAFTA in 1994 ushered in a new era for Mexican export agriculture. US farmers invested in Mexico and US supermarkets bought Mexican produce, encouraging an expansion that appears likely to continue despite scarce water, rising wages, and security concerns linked to cartels in Mexico. Mexico’s big 3 fruit and vegetable exports are avocados, berries, and tomatoes.
The USMCA that replaced NAFTA in 2020 includes provisions that require governments to protect migrant workers. Trade in products that involve child and forced labor can be blocked at the border, which could lead to more scrutiny of farm workers in all three countries. Charges that growers from one country are dumping (selling below their cost of production) their produce in another could be joined by complaints that violations of labor laws should block imports from particular farms.
Supply of Labor: Workers
The NAWS has been interviewing non-H-2A workers employed on crop farms since 1989, and finds that most US crop workers are men born in rural Mexico who entered the US without authorization in the 1990s and early 2000s when they were in their 20s and 30s. A 70x70 rule prevailed for most of the last three decades: 70 percent of US crop workers were born in Mexico, and 70 percent of these Mexican-born workers were unauthorized.
Relatively few crop workers migrate from one farm to another. The NAWS considers persons who move 75 miles or more to do farm work to be migrants. The most common type of migration is shuttle migration by legal immigrants between homes in Mexico and farm jobs in the US. Follow-the-crop migration imagines a family doing farm work in Florida before traveling to Georgia and later North Carolina to live and work on multiple farms, and is very rare. However, crop workers may work on multiple farms over the year even if they have only one employer such as a FLC who moves them from farm to farm.
Seasonal farm work is more often a decade-long job rather than a career. Stable average agricultural employment of 1.5 million and a total farm workforce of 2.5 million means up to 125,000 new workers each year if five percent of current workers exit annually.
The NAWS finds that newcomers, the one eighth of non H-2A crop workers who have been doing US crop work for less than two years, are mostly well-educated US citizens and legal immigrants who often have both farm and nonfarm jobs, suggesting that they may be more skilled workers. The trickle of new foreign-born crop workers, on the other hand, are more similar to current settled Mexican-born workers with little education and English.
The H-2A program allows farm employers to fill seasonal jobs with guest workers if US workers are not available and the presence of guest workers does not have adverse effects on similar US farm workers. H-2A job certifications rose from less than 50,000 in FY05 to over 370,000 in FY22.
The 300,000 Mexican-born H-2A workers who are in the US an average six months fill the equivalent of a sixth of the 1.1 million average jobs in US crop agriculture. About 70 percent of H-2A job certifications are in fruit, vegetable, and horticultural specialty (nursery) or FVH commodities, and over half are in the top five states, including a quarter in FL and CA.
Some 10,000 unique employers file 18,000 applications with DOL to hire H-2A workers; some employers file multiple applications. The five percent of employers who are certified to fill 100 or more jobs with H-2A workers account for two-thirds of all H-2A job certifications, and the 100 who are certified to fill 500 or more jobs account for 40 percent of total certifications. At the other end of the size spectrum, two-thirds of employers are certified for less than 10 H-2A workers, and they collectively account for less than 10 percent of all job certifications.
The size structure of H-2A employers is similar to the size structure of US farms. Most of the two million US farms are small operations that produce a small share of US farm commodities, while the five percent largest US farms account for three-fourths of all farm commodities produced. This distinction between numerous small farms with a small share of total output or employment, and a few large operations that account for most farm output or employment, suggests the need for policies that treat large operations differently, such as a TSA-style precheck system that permits larger operations with compliance units to self-certify their need for H-2A workers and their housing, allowing DOL to focus on the types of employers more likely to violate H-2A regulations.
About 45 percent of H-2A job certifications go to FLCs, but FLCs account for three-fourths of all H-2A jobs in CA and FL. The contractor share of H-2A job certifications is highest in AZ, IL, and IN, and a third of FLC job certifications are for worksites outside the state where the FLC is based, as when an AZ-based FLC provides H-2A workers to a CA employer. FL-based FLCs had the highest number of H-2A jobs certified outside the state, including 7,000 in GA; the GA H-2A workers would normally travel directly to the GA work site, and their jobs are counted with GA H-2A job certifications. Field crop tasks such as seed corn detasseling and tobacco production account for 44 percent of H-2A employers, reflecting the fact that most field crop farms request only a few guest workers.
CA receives almost 1,000 employer applications to fill almost 40,000 jobs with H-2A workers, led by about a quarter each in strawberries and lettuce. Most H-2A jobs are in the coastal California salad and berry bowl, which has about 40 percent of California farm employment, but the H-2A program is growing fastest in the San Joaquin Valley fruit bowl that has half of the state’s farm employment.
DOL’s OFLC audited five percent of the almost 63,000 employer H-2A applications between FY17 and FY21. About 1.3 percent of the 53,600 fixed-site farm operators who were audited were debarred, and 2.2 percent of the 226 FLCs audited were debarred. WHD debarred a total of 84 employers from the H-2A program between FY17 and FY21, including 56 or two-thirds who were FLCs.
DOL’s federal Wage and Hour Division enforces H-2A regulations that protect H-2A and US workers. Over the past five years, WHD in the western states found violations on almost 90 percent of the farms and FLCs that were investigated, assessing more in civil money penalties, $12 million, than in back wages found owed to workers, $10 million. CMPs for H-2A violations are normally up to $1,500 per violation, but can be $5,000 for willful violations. WHD considers seven factors to determine how much to assess in CMPs.
FLCs must be registered with both federal and California agencies, and many of the FLC employees who are registered are not authorized to transport and house farm workers, essential services that must be provided to H-2A workers. WHD finds that the most common H-2A violations involve housing, wages, and transportation, such as transporting workers in buses or vans without authorization or in unsafe vehicles.
DOL wants the authority to assess and keep the fees charged to employers for H-2A certification and to use these monies to audit more H-2A employers, to require FLCs to be registered with DOL before applying for H-2A certification, and to expand joint liability in the agricultural supply chain so that the beneficiaries of work done when H-2A regulations are violated pay some of the back wages and penalties assessed for H-2A violations. DOL also wants to bar employers from applying for H-2A certification unless they participate in wage surveys, to require employers to present clear and convincing evidence when appealing DOL decisions, and to collect litigation costs from employers who lose appeals of DOL decisions.
What effects do the rising number of H-2A workers have on US farm workers? The AEWR is the average hourly earnings of crop and livestock employees from the year before in 18 states or multistate regions, and must be offered and paid to H-2A and US workers in corresponding employment. AEWRs could act as a wage ceiling, as when the AEWR is less than the local prevailing wage in a high-wage area such as Napa, or act as a wage floor in states where the AEWR is twice the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Empirical modeling suggests that the AEWR mostly acts as a wage floor, so that freezing the AEWR as proposed in the FWMA immigration reform would reduce the wages of US farm workers by about $600 million a year. Models suggest that AEWR increases raise US farm worker wages more in states with fewer H-2A jobs certified, which may suggest that farm employers outside of the top-10 H-2A using states first raise wages to recruit and retain additional US workers before turning to H-2A workers.
The QCEW wage bill for US crop farms was $35 billion in 2021, including $22 billion for workers hired directly and $13 billion for workers brought to farms by crop support services, primarily farm labor contractors. At least 10 percent of the crop wage bill is paid to H-2A workers. If the AEWR acts as a wage floor, most of the wage savings from an AEWR freeze would result from slower wage growth for US farm workers. 1
Before 2012, some state and local governments signed 287g agreements with ICE to detect and deter unauthorized foreigners from coming to or remaining in their jurisdictions. The result was a reduced supply of farm labor in 287g counties that was associated with decreased fruit production. Farmers seemed to respond to 287g agreements by increasing their expenditures on direct hire labor but not contract labor expenses, while FLCs responded by recruiting more US workers.
USDA’s Economic Research Service has the largest concentration of professional agricultural economists, almost 300 in Wash DC and Kansas City, who produce most of the data and analysis of US agriculture. The hours worked by farm operators and unpaid family members fell faster than the hours worked by hired workers in the seven decades since WWII, which means that the share of farm work done by hired workers rose on the fewer and larger farms that account for most farm output. ERS examines the changing quantity and quality of farm labor in wide-ranging studies, and the links between farm labor costs and changes in farm production techniques and trade patterns.
H-2A workers are not included in the NAWS, and remarkably little of the demographic information collected by DOS when issuing H-2A visas is public. Interviews with over 150 H-2A apple pickers and pruners in WA found that most wanted to work as many hours as possible while in the US and would like to learn English in their free time. Workers believed that their US living conditions could be improved with wireless internet in their housing, common outdoor areas to play sports and relax, and personal refrigerators even when employers provide meals. Many H-2A workers would like to take short vacations at their own expense when less work is available in the US.
The WA H-2A workers were an average 31, over half completed secondary or technical school in Mexico, almost all had done farm work before, and a third had worked in WA apples at least one previous year. Over 60 percent reported that they were paid a combination hourly and piece rate, as when the employer guaranteed an hourly AEWR of $17 but workers could earn more by picking apples for $30 a bin. More workers said it was difficult rather than easy to get an H-2A visa, but half were confident that they would get an H-2A visa next season. Most thought that wages were increasing faster in the US than in Mexico, and most wanted to work more than 40 hours a week.
The WA H-2A workers were presented with several scenarios, including a higher piece rate but a maximum 40-hour work week, and most preferred more hours to higher piece rates with or without overtime pay for the extra hours worked. This suggests that H-2A workers are in the US to maximize their earnings, and see working more hours as the major way to achieve more earnings. In combination with worker preferences for short vacations during their contracts, some H-2A workers would like to be akin to fly-in, fly-out FIFO mining and oil workers who work 3-4 weeks for 84 hours a week in the North Slope of Alaska and then have 3-4 weeks off. In seasonal agriculture, FIFO would likely involve a single several period of weeks off over six to eight months.
California and at least four other states are phasing in overtime wages for farm workers who are exempt from the FLSA requirement that employers pay 1.5x the worker’s usual wage after eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. Analysis of worker-reported hours and earnings data from the NAWS suggests that worker-reported hours decreased as California’s AB 1066 overtime law was phased in, especially for workers who previously worked 55 and 60 hours a week.
The worker-reported data suggests that some farm employers tried to reduce hours and avoid overtime pay, which could lead to lower farm worker earnings. However, the NAWS also finds that weekly wages are rising, suggesting that minimum and other wage increases may offset the effects of reduced hours and raise worker earnings.
Interviews with 13 NY farmers and 35 farm workers and analysis of media coverage of the H-2A program and the proposed FWMA found that farmers and agents complained about the cost and bureaucracy of applying for and employing H-2A workers, a theme echoed by the grower organizations pushing for enactment of the FWMA. However, both farm employer and worker organizations are divided about the FWMA, with some believing that it is the best way to move forward and others wanting more employer- or worker-friendly changes.
California voters legalized the production and use of medical marijuana in 1996 and recreational marijuana in 2016. Legal marijuana sales were about $5 billion in California in 2022, and the state collected about $1 billion in sales and excise taxes. Today 21 states have legalized recreational marijuana.
Outdoor to Indoor
When recreational marijuana became legal in California in 2018, the state was producing an estimated 15 million pounds of cannabis a year and exporting 80 percent of it out of state. Before legalization, most cannabis farms were small and outdoor operations in the Emerald Triangle of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties. Many produced perhaps 300 pounds of cannabis worth up to $1,500 a pound a year on less than a quarter acre for revenues of $450,000.
Legalization led to the development of a greenhouse cannabis industry in coastal counties such as Monterey and Santa Barbara and an indoor or warehouse operations in urban areas such as Los Angeles. By combining or stacking the one-acre licenses issued by cities and counties, some of these operations have become large. The largest US cannabis greenhouse is reportedly the $92 million Glass House Farms in Camarillo, which covers 114 acres or five million square feet and produces 300,000 pounds of cannabis a year with 200 year-round employees.
The growth of mixed-light greenhouses that rely on natural and artificial light for photosynthesis, and indoor operations that rely only on artificial light, led to declining cannabis prices of about $1,100 a pound for cannabis from indoor operations, $600 a pound for greenhouse cannabis, and $400 a pound for outdoor cannabis. The result is a shift in cannabis production from small and outdoor farms in northern California to greenhouses and warehouses in coastal and southern California.
There are several unique features of cannabis legalization, including state and local regulation and labor peace. California allowed its 482 cities and 58 counties to opt out of permitting the legal production, processing, and sale of cannabis, and many did. Cities and counties that allow cannabis production and sale often require costly permits and impose taxes on the production and sale of cannabis.
AB 1291 requires marijuana growers with 20 or more employees to sign neutrality agreements with unions that want to organize their employees within 60 days of a union’s request. Cannabis employers and unions may negotiate collective bargaining agreements without a secret-ballot election to determine if workers want to be represented by a particular union. There have been three elections on California cannabis-growing operations since 2018, and Teamsters Local 1932 has a contract covering 39 farm workers at Tikun Olam Adelanto facility.
The cannabis farm workforce is significant but hard to measure with published farm labor data. California NAICS 1114, which covers greenhouse, nursery, and floriculture production, had 1,200 establishments employing an average 28,000 workers for an average wage of $885 a week in 2021. The number of 1114 establishments rose by 16 percent between 2018 and 2021, average 1114 employment rose by eight percent, and 1114 average weekly wages rose climbed 20 percent, but it is not clear what share of 1114 is cannabis (NAICS 111998 is reportedly open-field cannabis).
If 20 hours of labor are required to produce a pound of dry bud outdoors, and 10 hours are require to trim leaves, a million pounds of outdoor cannabis that requires 30 hours a pound suggests a total of 30 million hours or the equivalent of 15,000 full-time workers. Greenhouse and warehouse cannabis production is less labor intensive. A 5,000 square foot indoor operation that produces 6,000 pounds of cannabis worth $1,000 a pound would have revenue of $6 million and labor costs of less than $200,000. Labor costs are the highest share of revenue for outdoor cannabis, and the combination of high labor costs and lower prices for outdoor cannabis helps to explain why outdoor production is shrinking.
The United States is a nation of immigrants whose motto, e pluribus unum (from many, one), is a reminder that most Americans share the immigrant experience of beginning anew in the land of opportunity. Most Americans believe that immigration allows foreigners to achieve the success they seek in the United States while enriching Americans with a larger economy and socioeconomic diversity.
Immigration debates are dominated by three major issues: unauthorized or irregular migration, asylum, and labor migration. Congress has been unable to agree on what to do about the 10 to 11 million unauthorized foreigners in the US, the millions of foreigners who want to be recognized as refugees and allowed to start over in the US, and the calls of employers for more guest workers at a time of low unemployment.
The number of unauthorized foreigners in the US began rising in the 1980s after the Mexican peso was devalued sharply and the US recovered from the 1981-82 recession. Most were rural Mexican men who arrived without their families to fill seasonal farm jobs before returning to Mexico during the winter months.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 legalized 2.7 million unauthorized foreigners, 85 percent Mexicans and almost half farm workers, and introduced sanctions on US employers who knowingly hired unauthorized workers. The sanctions spawned a false documents industry that, combined with the 1995 peso crisis in Mexico, contributed to rising unauthorized migration in the 1990s and early 2000s. The number of unauthorized foreigners peaked at 12 million in 2007 and has stabilized at 10 to 11 million, including half Mexicans.
Two thirds of the unauthorized foreigners have been in the US a decade or more, raising questions about their future and the future of their US-born children. The centerpiece of the immigration reform proposals approved by the Senate in 2006 and 2013 was to repeat the IRCA Grand Bargain, viz, legalize unauthorized foreigners in the US for admissionists who want more immigration and toughen border and interior enforcement for restrictionists who want to prevent illegal immigration.
Admissionists who want to legalize unauthorized foreigners and admit more immigrants and refugees have shifted from advocating comprehensive reforms to pushing for incremental or piece meal proposals that have the most bipartisan appeal. The two leading incremental proposals are to allow Dreamers or unauthorized foreigners who arrived in the US before age 16 and graduated from US high schools to become immigrants quickly and to allow unauthorized farm workers and their families to become legal immigrants by continuing to do US farm work while also making it easier for farmers to employ guest workers. Many restrictionists say that there can be no incremental immigration reforms until the Mexico-US border is secure.
Beginning in 2014, large numbers of Central Americans began crossing the Mexico-US border and applying for asylum, citing domestic and gang violence at home as reasons to be recognized as refugees and allowed to begin new lives in the US. Many arrived as families and, because the US does not detain children under 18 for more than 20 days, they were released into the US until their cases were heard by immigration judges. Over 80 percent of Central Americans are not recognized as refugees, but they and other asylum seekers can work legally and their children can attend US schools for several years until there is a final decision in their cases.
The Biden Administration is considering mechanisms to slow the influx of asylum seekers, such as returning foreigners who cross the Mexico-US border illegally to Mexico while allowing those who find a US sponsor to be paroled into the US, which means they can arrive and work legally while their asylum applications are pending. Other control measures may include detaining families together while they await decisions in their asylum cases and requiring foreigners who pass through Mexico en route to the US to apply for asylum in Mexico. The US also aims to tackle the root causes of migration in Central America and countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela that send many asylum seekers to the US.
The US has a dozen visas that allow foreigners to work legally for periods ranging from several months to several years. Visas that allow foreigners to work while in the US for another purpose, as with foreign students on F-1 visas or exchange visitors on J-1 visas, do not require US employers to first try to recruit US workers. Similarly, the H-1B program that allows employers to hire Indian IT workers and other professionals is capped at 85,000 a year for profit-seeking private companies to protect US workers, but most US employers do not have to try to recruit US workers before hiring H-1B workers.
Most work visas for low-skilled workers require US employers to try and fail to recruit US workers before being certified to employ guest workers. US farm workers are protected from the adverse effects of guest workers by this recruitment requirement and a special Adverse Effect Wage Rate that is higher than the minimum wage, while US nonfarm workers are protected by a quota of 66,000 a year that Congress has allowed DHS to raise.
Employers apply for far more guest workers than the quotas allow. Employers assert that low unemployment rates and the existence of more US job vacancies than unemployed workers demonstrate labor shortages and justify making it easier to employ guest workers. Critics point to examples of employers taking advantage of vulnerable guest workers by not paying promised wages or unlawfully charging them for housing and other services to call for tougher regulation and oversight of vulnerable guest workers.
The US remains the world’s major destination for immigrants, guest workers, and unauthorized foreigners. Immigration problems are easy to discuss, but they have defied consensus on durable solutions. Despite two centuries as a nation of immigrants, managing migration is one of the most contentious 21st century US policy issue.
1Average crop support employment is 40 percent of the average 875,000 average employment in US crop agriculture (NAICS 111 = 545,000 and 1151 = 330,000 in 2021); average FLC employment (115115) is 175,000 or 20 percent of average UI-covered crop employment and over half of average crop support employment. UI covers an estimated 80 percent of farm workers, suggesting total average crop employment of 1.1 million.