Hired farmworkers make up less than 1 percent of all U.S. wage and salary workers, but they play an essential role in labor-intensive industries within U.S. agriculture, such as the production of fruits, vegetables, melons, dairy, and nursery and greenhouse crops. Hired farmworkers are found in a variety of occupations, including field crop workers, nursery workers, livestock workers, graders and sorters, agricultural inspectors, supervisors, and hired farm managers. The majority are wage and salary workers, hired directly by farmers, but some are employees of agricultural service companies, such as farm labor contractors.
In 2016, 75 percent of hired farmworkers were foreign-born people, mostly from Mexico and Central America; about 60 percent of these immigrant farmworkers were not authorized to work legally in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey. In recent years, the supply of farmworkers from Mexico available to work in U.S. agriculture appears to be declining. The labor market has responded to this shift in a longstanding source of workers in part through rising farm wages, increased use of the H-2A guest worker program, and an increase in the share of women in the farm workforce.
Farm wages have risen over time for nonsupervisory crop and livestock workers, excluding contract labor. According to data from the USDA’s Farm Labor Survey, real (inflation-adjusted) wages rose at an average annual rate of 1.1 percent between 1990 and 2019. In the past 5 years, real farm wages grew even faster at 2.8 percent per year. This is consistent with growers’ reports that the longstanding supply of workers from Mexico has decreased, as growers may respond over time by raising wages to attract workers from other sources.
The gap between farm and nonfarm wages has slowly shrunk but is still substantial. In 1990, the average wage for nonsupervisory farmworkers—$9.80 an hour in 2019 dollars—was about half the $19.40 wage of private-sector nonsupervisory workers in the nonfarm economy. By 2019, the $13.99 farm wage was 60 percent of the $23.51 nonfarm wage (see figure below).