By STAN MADDUX
WASHINGTON D.C. — More farm workers were hired and at higher pay during the first week in October compared to the same time period last year, according to a new report from USDA.
USDA says 809,000 workers were employed by farm operators during the week of Oct. 6. That was three-percent above the number of farm employees at that time in 2018.
USDA also revealed the average gross hourly wage paid by farmers in early October was $15.02, a four percentage increase from a year ago.
Field workers in Oregon and California were the highest paid, averaging $16.56 per hour or 94 cents above last year’s hourly rate.
According to USDA, the pay increase is a reflection of a continued tight job market in agriculture. From 2014 to 2018, the average hourly wage for nonsupervisory farm workers rose slightly more than 10-percent. That’s the highest rate over a 4-year period during the past two decades, USDA said. Farm worker pay is also increasing at a higher rate than non-farm wages.
However, compensation for work on the farm still lags behind what’s earned by non-farm employees, according to USDA. U.S Census Bureau data shows 57-percent of people doing farm related work in 2017 were Hispanic; while 32-percent were white.
U.S citizens made up 54-percent of the farm related workforce and 49-percent were married, USDA said.
Bill Knudson, an agricultural economist at Michigan State University, said the October increase in farm hiring was likely from this year’s harvest being so late and the early onset of winter. Many farmers reported hiring extra people to get their crops in before the season’s first measureable snowfall.
Knudson said he knew farm wages had been going up but was a little surprised by just how much.
Despite the higher pay, he said filling job openings in agriculture remains very much a challenge because some people would rather do something else even at a lower wage scale or quit once they get their first taste of farm work.
“Kind of everybody thinks farm work is easy until they start doing it or that it’s low skill until they start doing it,” he said.
Knudson said higher wages put farmers in a pinch especially right now with profit margins in recent years being so narrow.
Eventually, he said farmers needing manual labor will hit a cost of labor ceiling and have charge more for their crop or as technology advances turn to machinery to harvest what’s now picked by hand.
“Given the current stress the farm sector has I think there’s a definite limit to how much more than can go up. I’m not sure what that is but they can only go up so far,” Knudson said.
He said time has a way of working things out, though.
“The winner right now in the short term are the farm workers. The losers are farmers. In the long run, the losers might be consumers who have to pay higher prices,” Knudson said.