A Vanishing Breed: How the Decline in U.S. Farm Laborers Over the Last Decade Has Hurt the U.S. Economy and Slowed Production on American Farms
The Partnership for a New American Economy’s new report, “A Vanishing Breed: How the Decline in U.S. Farm Laborers Over the Last Decade Has Hurt the U.S. Economy and Slowed Production on American Farms” shows that in the last decade, as fewer young agricultural workers have come to the United States, the number of field and crop laborers available to farms has been rapidly declining. This drop has created a severe labor shortage in many key parts of the country vital to American farmers and iconic crops. It has also had an impact far beyond rural America: The lack of workers has not only hurt the ability of U.S. farms to grow and expand, it has cost our economy tens of thousands of jobs in related industries like trucking, marketing, and equipment manufacturing.
The supply of workers available to U.S. farmers has been rapidly declining. Between 2002 and 2014, the number of full-time equivalent field and crop workers has dropped by at least 146,000 people, or by more than 20 percent. Wage patterns indicate that this caused a major labor shortage on U.S. farms.
The labor shortage has hurt our country’s ability to produce labor-intensive fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts. Had labor shortages not been an issue, production of these crops could have been higher by about $3.1 billion a year. Given that farm revenues often trickle down to other industries in our economy, that $3.1 billion in additional farm production would have led to almost $2.8 billion in added spending on non-farm services like transportation, manufacturing, and irrigation each year. That spending would have created more than 41,000 additional non-farm jobs in our economy annually.
The number of potential farm workers immigrating to the United States has greatly slowed over the last decade. Between 2002 and 2012, the number of new field and crop workers immigrating to the United States fell by roughly 75 percent. This led to a drop in the number of entry-level workers available for difficult jobs like hoeing, harvesting, and planting.
Some parts of the country were particularly hard hit by the recent labor decline. The number of full-time equivalent field and crop workers in California declined by about 85,000 people between 2002 and 2014. The vast majority of this decline happened before the drought started in 2011. The southeastern part of the United States was also hard hit. Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina lost about 8,500 workers total, or more than one in four of the crop workers employed in 2002. Colorado, Nevada, and Utah lost 36.7 percent of their full-time equivalent field workforce, or 7,029 people.
Today’s field and crop workers are rapidly aging, signaling even greater potential future challenges when the current generation of workers retires. While 36.1 percent of field and crop workers during the 1998–2002 period had arrived in the United States within the past five years, just 11.5 percent were in that situation by 2008–2012. Because many new immigrant farmworkers tend to be young, this has caused the workforce to age dramatically. While 14.2 percent of farmworkers were 45 years old or older in the 1998–2002 period, by 2008–2012, that figure had more than doubled, reaching 27.1 percent.
U.S.-born workers are not filling labor gaps on American farms. From 2002 to 2014, the increase in U.S.-born workers offset less than three percent of the dramatic decline in field and crop workers on U.S. farms caused by dwindling foreign-born workers.