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Agricultural Workers


AGRICULTURAL WORKERS. In the United States, workers in agriculture include agricultural inspectors, graders and sorters, and farmworkers. While some agricultural workers find permanent, full-time positions, most will work in temporary, low-paying jobs that are seasonal and often require seven-day workweeks with days that begin before sunrise. They may work indoors or outdoors. Most work with food crops or animals. However, increasing agricultural mechanization, consolidation of farms, and urbanization have led to less growth in the number of agricultural jobs in the United States. Growth in landscape and horticultural services will require a shift to fill the need for more workers in horticulture and landscaping. According to the United States Bureau of Labor, the number of jobs in agriculture was expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations during the 20002010 period.

Agricultural Inspectors

Most agricultural inspectors work in full-time, permanent positions for the federal and state governments. Inspectors frequently examine food crops, livestock, and food processing equipment and facilities for compliance with laws and regulations that govern health, quality, and safety. Inspectors also examine nursery and greenhouse crops. In order to control or eradicate pests and diseases, they collect samples of food or plants and send them to a laboratory for further examination and analysis.

Graders and Sorters

Graders and sorters of agricultural products spend their workdays grading, sorting, and classifying food and other agricultural products such as buckwheat hulls, pickles, olives, nuts, and apples. Fresh-picked fruits and vegetables must be examined and sorted by size, weight, color, or quality before packaging for markets.


Farmworkers make up 90 percent of all agricultural workers. However, according to the Economic Research Service, the number of farmworkers is difficult to determine since they tend to live in unconventional housing, or are undocumented foreign immigrants who avoid enumerators. Farmworkers include laborers who work with food, greenhouse, and nursery crops, and also caretakers of farm and ranch animals. Compared to most wage and salary workers, farmworkers tend to be younger, less educated, never married, and non-U.S. citizens. Most are male and Hispanic or belong to a minority. Most farmworkers live in poverty. Between 1999 and 2000, the real average weekly earnings of hired farmworkers decreased from $331 to $319 for full-time workers and from $289 to $280 for all hired farmworkersand the downward trend seems to be continuing.

Migrant farmworkers. Migrant farmworkers make up a large segment of all farmworkers in the United States. Migrant workers travel across state or county boundaries to do agricultural work of a seasonal or other temporary nature, and often must be absent overnight from their permanent place of residence. In 2000, 36 percent of hired farmworkers were not United States citizens. Almost 78 percent of the non-U.S. citizens working as hired farmworkers were employed in the West, where they accounted for 63 percent of the hired farmworker force. Crop production accounted for 72 percent of migrant farmwork.

Migrant and other farmworkers often work physically exhausting schedules: seven days a week, thirteen hours per day, in rain, heat, and high humidity. For example, while detasseling corn in Illinois in July, a group of migrant workers will likely experience insect bites, heat exhaustion, injury, fatigue, and exposure to pesticides and fertilizers. Workers earn minimum wage and may be provided with temporary housing and access to local health care. Some workers must contend with harassment when local residents mistrust the workers. Language is a barrier, especially for older workers who have not learned English. Families that travel throughout the year must keep up with schoolwork. Local school systems may provide summer school, or students may use the Internet to stay in touch with their courses at home. Sometimes, non-profit groups will provide migrant schoolchildren with special activities such as swimming classes, library access, or tutoring.

Migrant workers have not always received the help they needed. In the 1960sat the same time as the civil-rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam Waran effort was made to organize farmworkers in order to improve the quality of their lives. César Chávez, a migrant worker, organized agricultural workers in a successful bid for higher wages, better working conditions, and access to social services such as citizenship classes, immigration advice, and welfare counseling. In the 1970s, the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA) had 150,000 members. By the late 1900s, illegal labor or legal "green card" workers had diminished the power of the UFWA. Few twenty-first-century agricultural workers are members of a union. Some migrant agricultural workers do not have legal authorization to work in the United States.

See also Agriculture since the Industrial Revolution; Class, Social; Division of Labor; Food Production, History of; High-Technology Farming.


Hurt, Douglas R. American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1994.

Mines, Richard, Susan Gabbard, and Anne Steirman. "A Profile of U.S. Farm Workers: Demographics, Household Composition, Income, and Use of Services." United States Department of Labor, Office of Program Economics Research Report #6. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, April 1997.

Runyan, Jack L. "Farm Labor: The Number of Hired Farmworkers Increased in 2000 and Most Now Come from Minority Groups." Rural America 16 (Fall 2001): 4450.

United States Department of Agriculture, Office of Communications. Agriculture Fact Book 2000. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2000.

Zeman, Elizabeth. "Migrant Farm Work Creates Hazards, Extra Needs." The Daily Illini. University of IllinoisChampaign, 30 August 2001.

Patricia S. Michalak

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