MPI Report: U.S. Agricultural Workforce Being Reshaped

DanIndustry News Release

Shifting Migration & Labor Strategies, with Drop in Unauthorized Share & Rise in Use of H-2A Program

agricultural workforceShifting migration patterns and labor strategies are reshaping the overwhelmingly foreign-born U.S. agricultural workforce, with a drop in the share of unauthorized workers and increased employer use of mechanization and the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program, a new Migration Policy Institute report shows.

The report, Immigration, and Farm Labor: From Unauthorized to H-2A for Some?, analyzes data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS) to sketch the changing conditions in agricultural employment, where three-quarters of workers are immigrants.

One significant factor underlying the changing trends, alongside evolving commodity demands and worker demographics, is declining migration from Mexico, the country of origin for most farm workers in the United States. These flows slowed with the 2008–09 recession, improving economic conditions in rural Mexico and stepped-up U.S. border enforcement. With fewer new arrivals, the U.S. agricultural workforce is aging, settling down and increasingly comprised of authorized workers. Between 2000 and 2014, the unauthorized share of the workforce declined from 55 percent to 47 percent.

With the supply of newcomers seeking work on U.S. farms less certain than in the past, agricultural employers are adjusting how they recruit and retain workers, writes author Philip Martin, a University of California, Davis agricultural economist. Some employers 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 temporary workers.

H-2A guest-workers represent a small but rapidly growing share of the hired agriculture workforce, which has ranged from 1.1 million to 1.4 million workers over the past decade. The H-2A visa program has seen a more than twelve-fold increase over two decades—from 11,000 visas issued in 1996 to more than 134,000 in 2016.

“The expansion of the H-2A program is due in part to the fact that it removes uncertainty about whether or not a sufficient workforce will be available when needed—a pressing concern, particularly following the recession and the slowdown of Mexican migration to the United States,” Martin writes.

The report examines the evolving patterns and demographics of the workforce, with a decline in the number following crops from location to location and a rise in the share of older workers. Beyond looking at employer adaptations to the changing workforce, the report recommends increased data collection and analysis of labor force practices and needs in agriculture.

Read the report here:

Image credit: (bottom right) Workers pruning wine grapes in a vineyard in Napa Valley, California.
Photography ID:
44857465/Copyright: Zukovsky / Deposit Photos