Over 40% of the United States is classified as farmland by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). This swath includes land used both for growing crops and raising livestock and other animals for consumption.
While the total number of farms has declined over the past decade, the average farm size has increased. In 2017, the average farm size in America was 444 acres, compared to just 242 acres in 1954.
With all of these ever-larger operations around the US, who is doing all the labor? You may know your local farmer from her stand at the weekend market, but the vast majority of produce grown in the states comes from large-scale industrial farming operations.
Of course, large-sized farms rely a great deal on machinery to manage tilling, planting, harvesting, and plowing all that land. But behind all of those heavy-duty machines is a hard-working labor force.
Through the 1950s, most farmworkers were self-employed or family members of landowners. And while most American farmers are still within the family, the proportion of self-employed to hired workers is much smaller these days.
Who Are Hired Farmworkers?
Workers can find jobs on agricultural operations in a few different ways. Like any job, they may be hired directly by the landowner. Other times, farmworkers find employment through third-party companies that place teams of workers on farms throughout the country, according to needs that change throughout the year.
For example, some farms may need extra hands during the harvest, but have enough family members to manage planting every year. Or, in parts of the country without year-long growing seasons, there is far less work during the winter compared with busy summers. These farms may rely on farmworker service companies to staff their operations for short periods of time.
Many hired farmworkers are migrant workers who emigrated from their homes in Mexico and Central America to find jobs in the US. The farm workers have settled in the States and work by following the crops as they mature. In 2019, according to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, 54% of hired farmworkers in a non-supervisory role were US citizens and 64% were Hispanic, with the vast majority being from Mexico.
The majority, 75%, of non-supervisory farmworkers are male, with an average age of 39.
What Do Hired Farmworkers Do?
What needs do these hired farmers fulfill on farms across the US? They work a variety of jobs. Hired farmworkers do everything from raising livestock to tending crops from planting through harvest to grading and sorting produce. On many farms, hired workers are a necessary part of nearly every stage of crop raising each year.
How Much Do Hired Farmworkers Make?
The farm workforce has aged over the past decade, with fewer young immigrants coming to the US to work on farms. At the same time, wages have increased in the past 20 years, and especially in the past 5 years.
According to the Farm Labor Survey, the average farmworker’s hourly wage is $13.99, which 60% of the average wage in the US for non-farming jobs. While there’s still a 40% gap there, it’s a gap that’s been slowly closing in the past 20 years. In 1990, farm wages were about half of non-farm wages, at $9.80 per hour.
Job titles Farmer, Rancher, and Agricultural Managers make the most, with an average of $24.77 an hour. On the other end of the spectrum, the lowest-paid workers, Graders and Sorters, make an average of $13.03 per hour.
Where Do Hired Farmworkers Live?
It might come as a surprise, but 60% of hired farmworkers live in urban areas. The Pacific coast has the largest population of hired farmworkers in the US. In Washington, Oregon, and California, farms are often quite close to metro areas, where workers can live and be transported to jobs each day.
New England is the region with the fewest hired farmworkers, which makes sense, given the smaller size of the states and shorter growing season there.
As an informed consumer, it can be helpful to take note not just of where your food comes from, but who is doing the work to grow and harvest all the fresh fruits and vegetables you enjoy. The US farm labor supply is constantly evolving according to demand, changes in the environment, and political decisions. And as machinery plays an increasingly important role in farming, our labor force may have to adapt to new roles, and job availability throughout the country.