Study Finds California Has Stable Farm Work Force

Vineyard owners and wineries may need to be more competitive or mechanize

by Andrew Adams
wine grapes vineyard agriculture california work force
Source: California Agriculture
San Rafael, Calif.—It’s a common refrain from vineyard owners and managers in California’s wine-growing regions: Vineyard labor is hard to find, and it seems to be getting even more scarce every year.

Wines & Vines hears that complaint at conferences like the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, while visiting wineries, and it frequently comes up in reports about harvest conditions.

It would seem California, which is home to a $47 billion agricultural sector, is almost bereft of skilled farm workers.

But according to a recent study, that doesn’t appear to be the case at all, as the state is home to twice as many workers as there are farm jobs. For those growers and vintners committed to manual labor in the vineyard, the findings suggest they’ll have to pay better wages, hire full-time workers and keep them busy all year or find a reliable contractor.

Philip Martin, professor emeritus in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis, and other researchers recently determined that in 2014 the state was home to 829,000 workers, and the number of full-time equivalent jobs in agriculture was 410,900. The article can be found online here

Martin said the goal of the project, which was published in the journal California Agriculture, was to provide a clearer picture of the state’s agricultural workforce by finding just how many workers there are. “Many farm employers argue that there are farm labor shortages, while worker advocates counter that there is only a shortage of wages to attract and retain farmworkers,” Martin said in a news release about the study. “Our objective was to provide a clearer picture of California’s agricultural work force by determining the actual number of wage and salary workers in agriculture.”

What they found is that the state has a stable work force and the majority of workers stick with one employer, which is often a labor contractor. 

Martin and his team pulled wage and salary data on the employees of California agricultural employers, tabulated their earnings and excluded workers in forestry, fishing and hunting. The data came from the state’s Employment Development Department, which collects taxes on employee pay to fund the state’s unemployment insurance program.

The researchers identified individual workers by social security number and tossed out 800 numbers that were problematic because of issues like an abnormally high number of jobs in one quarter. In the article, Martin notes 60% of California’s farm work force is believed to be unauthorized. “Farm employers say that farm workers present seemingly valid documentation and Social Security numbers (SSNs) when they are hired, so they do not know who is unauthorized.”

The wage data was then used to determine the amount of average employment in a particular sector, or an “estimate of full-time equivalent jobs.”

In 2014, the average employment in agriculture in California was 410,900, but employers reported 829,000 individual workers, meaning a 2:1 ratio between workers and jobs. These workers earned a combined $11.4 billion in pay from agricultural employers. “We have lots of people who do farm work in California,” Martin said. “If we could use more of them year-round, we would not have to always be looking for immigrants.”

The study also found that about 83% (or 692,000 agricultural workers) garnered most of their earnings from a farm employer in 2014, and 499,000 of these workers also only had one agricultural employer.

“In 2014 the crop support and fruit and nut sectors had the lowest average earnings, with $12,719 for crop support and $17,600 for fruits and nuts,” Martin writes. Cattle ranching and farming, for comparison, had an average of $29,223.

When Martin sorted the farmworkers by where they had their primary or highest earning job, he found that three counties had 35% of the state’s farmworkers. These counties and their respective number of workers were: Kern (116,000), Fresno (96,000) and Monterey (82,000).

Two of those counties are in the southern San Joaquin Valley, and all three have a diversified ag economy.

It’s much different in the North Coast, where counties with a dominant or large wine industry don’t have as many workers; Sonoma (9,500), Napa (7,800) and Mendocino (2,900).

Workers generally remain where they can find enough work all year or sufficient pay. That likely explains why counties in the San Joaquin Valley and Monterey County are home to a higher number of workers while the North Coast counties, where the cost of living is also much higher, are not. 

But the study also found that the number of workers employed in “crop support” services has grown by about 10,000 per year since 2010 and surpassed the number of “on-farm hires” for the first time since 2007. Farmworkers employed by contractors, however, had the lowest average earnings at $12,719.

In addition to Martin, the report’s other authors included Brandon Hooker, Muhammad Akhtar and Marc Stockton with the California Employment Development Department.

“Our data show that California has a remarkably stable workforce,” Martin said. “We found that most farmworkers are attached to one farm employer, often a labor contractor who moves them from farm to farm.”

Posted on 09.20.2016 - 17:24:03 PST
Honestly there isn't enough space to comment throughly on this subject. issue this. The issue is far more dynamic than is represented in the title of this article. As an FLC I can say without a doubt there is a shortage of labor in the 5 counties we operate in. To say we have a stable work force is ludicrous. farming needs transient labor. We depend on a seasonal workforce. Thus it's impossible to hire full time EE's. Many areas are crop specific and can not support full time workers. As an FLC I'm in favor of paying more once the buying is willing to pay more for the goods. It's not the FLC that controls the pay. It's the public.

Posted on 09.20.2016 - 18:17:27 PST
An example of academia being out of touch with reality. I'm an FLC as well, and no matter what the research numbers may say, labor is much more difficult to find now than it was 5 years ago.

Posted on 09.22.2016 - 09:45:06 PST