While a storm of discussion rages about immigration and deportation issues, University of California researchers have found surprising stability in the state’s huge agricultural workforce, largely composed of immigrants.

By recognizing that many farm workers in California work at two seasonal jobs in a year’s time the report has pegged the number of farm workers employed in California in recent years at more than 800,000, larger than generally believed.

Author of the report is longtime observer of farm worker numbers and conditions Philip Martin, now emeritus professor in the Agricultural and Natural Resources Department of the University at Davis.   Co-authors were M. Akhtar, Deputy Division Chief of the Labor Market Division in the California Employment Development Department(EDD) and Research Program Specialists at EDD B. Hooker and M. Stockton.

Their findings appear in the current issue of California Agriculture, the quarterly peer-reviewed publication of the university dealing with agricultural and Natural Resources issues.

One element of the new found stability of the agricultural workforce is in wages, not impressive by Silicon Valley standards, but adequate and sufficient for workers living beyond that area’s inflated economic bulge.

The study revealed that wage payments to farm workers are made largely by farm employers. A smaller percentage of farm worker compensation is paid by businesses that supply farmers with everything from tractors to telephones.

The report indicates that a major source of economic stability in the farm worker community is supplied by farm labor contractors. Workers by the thousands become attached to contractors who supply labor to farmers, food processors and packers. The contractors are alert to the needs for labor, and maintain corps of qualified workers to meet them at a moment’s notice.

The data indicate that workers attached to farm labor contractors generally receive higher pay than those who work directly for farmers. However, some of the highest paid workers are those who have worked directly for farmers for several years. For some the length of employment stretches to 20 years and beyond.

Although the study did not deal directly with this aspect, in cases of long-term employment workers can receive benefits comparable to those that might be given to family members, including housing, cars, educational benefits for their children, extended family vacations to Mexico or elsewhere and extensive medical insurance coverage.

Part of the study focused on 2014 and used statistics supplied by the North American Industry Classification System, leading to tabulation of all farm and non-farm jobs and earnings, excluding only wage and salary workers in the state in forestry, fishing and hunting. The data showed that the average earnings for all workers with at least one farm employer were greater than $19,000 in that year. It is reasonable to assume that the figure has increased significantly since.

Not unexpected, the statistics showed that the largest number of jobs, 391,711, were in the category called support activities for crop production. Second largest category with 153,999 jobs was fruit and tree nut farming, with vegetable and melon production far behind at 7,690. The tables included 137,711 jobs listed as nonfarm, completing the picture of seasonal work flexibility.

An earlier study from 1990 reported almost three workers for each year-round farm job, but the current data show that most farm workers have only one farm employer during the year. The authors of the study highlight that contrast as indication that the state has a very stable agricultural workforce.

With this data on hand it may be harder than we think to upset the farm worker-worker balance with deportation rumors and actions, and a lot easier to complete another fabulous harvest season.  

 

Don Curlee is an agriculture consultant in the Valley. His column appears each Monday in The Recorder.

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