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Report reveals shift of ag migrant laborersReport reveals shift of ag migrant laborers

Shifting migration patterns and employer labor strategies are reshaping agricultural workforce.

Jacqui Fatka

August 14, 2017

3 Min Read
Report reveals shift of ag migrant laborers

Although immigrant workers have long been employed on U.S. farms, shifting migration patterns and employer labor strategies are reshaping the agricultural workforce, according to a new report from the non-partisan group Migration Policy Institute.

Migration from Mexico to the U.S. has slowed due to the 2008-09 recession, improving conditions in rural Mexico and stepped-up border enforcement.

With fewer new arrivals, the agricultural workforce is aging, settling down and forming or reuniting families, as this analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s "National Agricultural Worker Survey" (NAWS) shows. Between 2000 and 2014, the unauthorized share of workers declined from 55% to 47%.

Seasonal farm work is usually a decade-long job rather than a lifetime career, and the slowdown in the arrival of newcomers has forced farm employers to adjust. Report author Philip Martin summarized these adjustments as the 4-S strategies: satisfy current workers to retain them, stretch their output by providing productivity-increasing aids, substitute machines for workers and supplement current workers with H-2A guest workers.

“In 2000, most new farmers workers were unauthorized; today, many are legal H-2A guest workers,” Martin noted.

With the supply of newcomers seeking work on U.S. farms less certain than in the past, farm employers are adjusting how they recruit and retain workers, Martin said. Some have introduced incentives to satisfy current workers and mechanical aids to stretch their productivity, while others have sought to substitute machines for workers or to supplement them with H-2A guest workers.

Immigration policy will largely determine which of the strategies dominates, Martin explained. “If the status quo is maintained, farm employers will likely continue to offer bonuses and other incentives to retain their current workers while introducing mechanical aids to make them more productive,” he added.

The substitution of machines for workers – already a reality in much of the agricultural industry – is often a longer-term process marked by the purchase of technology and changes to plants to make mechanical harvesting easier.

Supplementing the aging workforce with younger H-2A workers requires farm employers to demonstrate their inability to find suitable U.S. workers, offer guest workers free housing and pay a super-minimum wage.

“Temporary workers brought in on H-2A visas make up a small but rapidly growing share of the farm workforce and, should this trend continue, have the potential to significantly affect U.S.-born and other foreign-born workers alike,” the report noted.

Federal and state governments should consider redoubling their support for increased workforce data collection and analysis and for research into productivity-increasing and labor-saving technologies.

The report noted that the average number of jobs for hired workers on U.S. farms has been relatively stable at between 1.1 million and 1.4 million over the past decade, and the DOL projects similar employment levels for the near future. As the cultivation of labor-intensive commodities – such as strawberries – expands and creates more jobs, labor-saving mechanization eliminates jobs in other commodities, such as growing grapes.

NAWS found a declining share of share of farm workers to be migrants -- about 16% in both the U.S. overall and in California in 2013-14. The newcomer share of crop workers was less than 5% in 1988-91, rose to 22% in 1998-2000 and declined to 2% in 2013-14.

The share of workers over the age of 35 has risen from 36% in 1989-91 to 33% in 1998-2001 and to 56% in 2013-14. Also from the 2013-14 time period, 48% of U.S. crop workers were married parents, compared to 27% who were single with no children.

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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