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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Farm Labor News

Farm Business Management Update, October 2000

By Jeff Alwang

Three topics are covered below. The first contains national statistics on farm labor hirings, migrant workers, and wages. The second describes a new publication on federal laws and regulations affecting farm workers. The third describes an alternative means of housing migrant workers, one that may show promise in certain areas of Virginia. The source of all the information is Al French, the USDA Coordinator for Agricultural Labor Affairs.

Trends in farm labor hirings

The most recent release by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) on August 18, 2000, (See for full report.) shows that profound changes have occurred in the farm labor force this year. Nationally, hired farm workers are down by 7 percent, and wage rates are up 4 percent from a year ago. According to this report, 1.37 million hired workers were on the Nation's farms and ranches during the week of July 9-15, 2000. This figure represents a decrease of 7 percent from the previous year. Migrant workers accounted for 11.1 percent of the July hired workforce compared to 12.4 percent last year. Thus, nationally, the number of migrant workers hired on farms fell by more than 16 percent in the past year.

Farm operators paid their hired workers an average wage rate of $7.89 per hour during the July 2000 survey week, up 31 cents from a year earlier. Field workers received an average of $7.32 per hour, and livestock workers earned $7.65 per hour.

The largest increases in number of hired farm workers from a year ago were in the Southern Plains (Oklahoma and Texas), Northeast I (New England and New York), and Mountain I (Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming) regions. In the Southern Plains region, the largest increases in hired workers occurred on beef cattle operations. Ranchers moved cattle to available stock water facilities because of hot, dry weather that prevailed across most of the region.

The largest declines in number of hired farm workers from a year ago occurred in the Northern Plains (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas), California, Mountain II (Colorado, Nevada, and Utah), and Lake (Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) regions.

Hired farm worker wage rates were above a year ago in most regions. The largest increases occurred in the Southern Plains, Mountain I, and Mountain II regions. An increasingly competitive economic environment, coupled with a need to attract more skilled farm labor, continued to push hired farm wage rates higher in the above regions and nationwide.

Table 1: Field and Livestock Workers Combined: Wage Rates, by Type of Farm, by Region, and 48 States1
 July 11-17, 1999July 9-15, 2000
Region2Field CropsOther CropsLivestock & PoultryAll FarmsField CropsOther CropsLivestock & PoultryAll Farms
Northern Plains7.107.617.487.377.156.977.747.42
Southern Plains5.886.436.476.266.946.367.206.85
48 States6.837.147.08*7.086.927.487.527.39
1 Excludes service workers; 2 See regional definitions, below; 3 Insufficient data
* Revised.

Table 2: Migrant Workers: Percent of all Hired Workers, United States, by Quarter (Includes Agricultural Service Workers), 1997-001 YearJanuaryAprilJulyOctober
1 Definition "Migrant Worker" is a farm worker whose employment required travel that prevented the farm worker from returning to his/her permanent place of residence the same day.
* Revised.

Table 3: Farm Labor Regions
Northeast ICT, ME, MA, NH, NY, RI, VT
Northeast IIDE, MD, NJ, PA
Appalachian INC, VA
SoutheastAL, GA, SC
LakeMI, MN, WI
Cornbelt IIL, IN, OH
Cornbelt IIIA, MO
DeltaAR, LA, MS
Northern PlainsKS, NE, ND, SD
Southern PlainsOK, TX
Mountain IID, MT, WY
Mountain IICO, NV, UT
Mountain IIIAZ, NM
PacificOR, WA

For more information, these reports can be accessed in several ways:

INTERNET ACCESS: All NASS reports are available free of charge on the worldwide Internet. For access, connect to the Internet and go to the NASS Home Page at Select "Today's Reports" or Publications and then Reports by Calendar or Publications and then Search, by Title or Subject.

E-MAIL SUBSCRIPTION: There are two options for subscribing via e-mail. All NASS reports are available by subscription free of charge direct to your e-mail address. 1) Starting with the NASS Home Page at, click on publications, then click on the "Subscribe by E-mail" button which takes you to the page describing e-mail delivery of reports. Finally, click on "Go" to the Subscription Page and follow the instructions. 2) If you do NOT have Internet access, send an e-mail message to In the body of the message type the word: list.

CALL THE NASS TOLL-FREE ORDER DESK: (800) 999-6779 (U.S. and Canada) Other areas, please call (703) 834-0125; FAX: (703) 834-0110 (Visa, MasterCard, check, or money order acceptable for payment.)

For assistance with general agricultural statistics or further information about NASS or its products or services, contact the Agricultural Statistics Hotline at (800) 727-9540, 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. ET, or e-mail:

Information about labor legislation available online

Summary of Federal Laws and Regulations Affecting Agricultural Employers, 2000. By Jack L. Runyan, Food and Rural Economics Division, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Handbook No. 719. July 2000.

Hired labor's importance of to U.S. farm production requires agricultural employers to understand Federal laws and regulations governing employment, taxes, wages, and working conditions. This single-source publication summarizes these laws and regulations. This updated version of a 1992 report contains expanded sections on agricultural employers' Federal safety requirements, migrant and seasonal farmworker provisions, and tax requirements for agricultural employers, as well as new sections on employer responsibilities under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.

View it online in Adobe Acrobat format at or order a printed copy of this report at the USDA Order Desk at

New information about housing options for migrant workers

East Wenatchee, Wash. (AP 8/1)

The first state-run migrant farm worker camp is receiving positive reviews after the end of its three-week run. While some local residents have cited concerns about the project's $800,000 cost, most cherry pickers who stayed in the tent camp were happy with it, said Paula Benson, project coordinator for the Washington State Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development. "We've had tremendous, positive feedback," Benson said of the camp, which closed Monday.

"None of the feared problems of noise, fights, and unsightly trash happened," said Don Gurnard, owner of Merchant Patrol Security, which provided 24-hour security in the camp. "We didn't have any problems at all," he said.

The 50 large tents housed their maximum capacity of 250 workers through most of the three-week run. The nightly charge for stating at the camp was $3 a person or $10 a family. In addition to the tents, facilities included kitchens, showers, and toilets.

Supporters hope this year's camp will lead to the creation of more state-run camps next year. "This is not something private industry will practice. It's government's role to make this available," Benson said. The state's farm worker housing shortage is at its worst in the cherry season, when pickers move often and can end up in isolated rural areas with few shelter options. Many sleep in cars or in makeshift camps alongside rivers without sanitation or drinking water. Efforts to set up tent camps on grower-owned property have run into regulatory problems in the last couple of years, and proposals to use state parks to house laborers also created conflicts. This year, the state Department of Health and other agencies worked to establish rules for cherry and other crop housing and authorized temporary cherry tent camps under much stricter standards that won approval from the U.S. Department of Labor.

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