The San Joaquin Valley is the agricultural powerhouse of the United States and California. California accounts for an eighth of U.S. farm sales, largely because it produces high value fruit and nut, vegetable and melon, and horticultural specialty (FVH) crops such as nursery products and flowers. Over three-fourths of the state's $37 billion in farm sales in 2010 were crop commodities, and almost 90 percent of the $28 billion in California crop sales represented labor-intensive FVH commodities.

About half of California's farm sales and farm employment are produced in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley with four million residents that stretches from Stockton in the north to Bakersfield in the south. The leading U.S. farm county is Fresno, which had farm sales of almost $6 billion in 2010.

California's Uncertain Farm Labor Future

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The number of Braceros admitted to the U.S. between 1942 and 1964 was almost five million. Many Mexicans returned year after year, so one to two million individuals accounted for the five million Bracero admissions.

During the peak year of 1956, over 445,000 Braceros were admitted to work on U.S. crop farms. Many Braceros were in the U.S. only for several months, so that an estimated 126,000 full-time equivalent jobs were filled by Braceros in 1956, a ratio of 3.5 Braceros per FTE job, suggesting that Braceros worked an average 3.4 months each. This average duration of three to four months was stable throughout the 1950s.

The average employment of hired workers on U.S. farms in 1956 was two million, suggesting that 126,000 FTE Braceros were six percent of the average hired farm workforce. Braceros were concentrated in California and other Pacific states, where there were an average of only 300,000 hired workers, making Braceros a third or more of average employment.

Clemens estimated the effects of ending the Bracero program in 1964 by assembling data on farm employment and wages before and after 1964. He found that wages in states with more Braceros rose at the same pace as in states with few or no Braceros, suggesting that removing Braceros did not lead to wage spikes in states that could no longer employ Braceros. (Clemens, Michael A. Ethan G. Lewis, and Hannah M. Postel. 2017. Immigration Restrictions as Active Labor Market Policy: Evidence from the Mexican Bracero Exclusion. NBER Paper 23125.

Instead of U.S. workers filling jobs vacated by Braceros, commodities such as processing tomatoes, cotton, and sugar beets substituted capital for labor, so that production rose and employment fell. In crops that remained hand-harvested, including lettuce and citrus, mechanical aids were introduced to make work easier and to increase worker productivity.

The major implication of the Clemens analysis is that flexibility to adjust to a smaller labor supply lies mostly on the demand side of the farm labor market, not the supply side. Reducing the supply of workers does more to accelerate labor-saving substitution or encourage farmers to switch to less labor-intensive crops than it does to raise wages and draw U.S. workers into the farm work force.

The slowdown in unauthorized Mexico-U.S. migration since the 2008-09 recession is having effects similar to those of the 1960s. More farmers are providing their workers with mechanical aids to raise productivity, such as conveyor belts in the fields to reduce the time required to carry harvested produce. Dwarf trees produce apples and cherries that can be harvested without ladders, increasing worker productivity and making harvesting jobs more attractive to older workers and women.

There are renewed efforts to develop labor-saving machines. The major obstacles to machine harvesting of fruits and vegetables are uneven ripening and damage to the fruit and/or the tree. Some 70 to 80 percent of iceberg lettuce is harvested in the first pass through a field. Transplants and other technologies are raising the first-pass harvest toward 90 percent, which would allow a machine to cut all the lettuce in one pass and sort out the immature heads. Similarly, smaller trees and abscission chemicals allow fruit to be shaken from trees with machines that grasp the trunk and dislodge the fruit, the method used to harvest most tree nuts. The chemicals loosen the fruit, and smaller trees limit the fall and the damage to the fruit.

Some farmers are switching crops, as from raisins to almonds. U.S. raisins have traditionally been produced by farms with fewer than 50 acres and harvested by workers who cut green bunches and lay them on paper trays to dry into raisins in the sun. Larger vineyards planted with earlier-ripening grapes can justify machines that cut the canes holding bunches of grapes so that they dry into raisins on the vine; machines then shake the raisins into accompanying bins. Some smaller raisin growers are selling out to larger growers or switching to nuts that are harvested mechanically.

More growers are supplementing their aging and settled farm work forces with H-2A guest workers. DOL certified 165,700 farm jobs to be filled with guest workers in FY16, almost three times the 59,100 certified in FY06. By selecting only the best foreign workers, employers can justify the AEWR of $11 to $12 an hour that must be paid to H-2A workers, plus the cost of recruitment, transportation and housing.

H-2A are generally younger and more productive in hand-harvesting tasks, and they are "loyal" since they cannot switch U.S. employers in order to earn higher wages.

About half of the workers employed on U.S. crop farms have been unauthorized over the past two decades. Crop workers interviewed by the NAWS were an average 28 in the mid-1990s and are today over 38. Most have families that include U.S.-born children.

Most farm workers have only one farm employer during the year, and fewer than five percent follow the ripening crops, with multiple employers in several states. Farm work is increasingly like nonfarm work in the sense that farm workers live away from the place where they work and carpool to their jobs.

Two major farm labor scenarios are possible. First, there could be enforcement-only legislation that reduces the farm labor supply and accelerates labor-saving mechanization and crop changes, speeding the diffusion of robotic milking systems and systems to mechanize the harvest of fruits and vegetables. Second, there could be relaxation of regulations to employ guest workers, which could mark a return to the Bracero era of the 1950s, when Braceros lived on the farms where they worked. The most likely scenario is some combination of more mechanization and more guest workers, but not more U.S. workers in the fields.

Clemens believes that Americans will not do farm work for wages. He argues that foreigners employed temporarily in U.S. agriculture can benefit themselves and their countries of origin as well as the U.S., the elusive triple-win in migration and development. For example, Haitians could increase their incomes 15-fold by working in U.S. agriculture, and their remittances could benefit the poorest Haitian households.

A sample of 30 Haitian workers, including 12 who were employed in the U.S. in 2015 and earned about $100 a day, found that even short periods of U.S. work raised the incomes of rural Haitians. Clemens believes that the supply of U.S. workers is inelastic or unlikely to increase with wages, so that admitting guest workers to fill jobs that would otherwise be vacant maintains U.S. farm production.

H-2B. There are 66,000 H-2B visas available to nonfarm employers seeking foreign workers to fill seasonal jobs lasting nine months or less, and they are allocated to employers in two 33,000-lot tranches. Employers may apply 90 days before their date of need, and they requested 82,000 H-2B workers for the April 1-Sepember 30, 2017 period, far more than the 33,000 available. Landscaping employs almost 40 percent of H-2B workers.

Economists note that wages in 10 of the 15 top H-2B occupations including landscaping fell between 2004 and 2014, and the unemployment rate rose in 14 of the 15 occupations with the most H-2B workers. Employers are allowed to conduct private surveys to determine prevailing wages for H-2B workers, and DOL may not monitor employer efforts to recruit U.S. workers.

The largest low-skilled guest worker program are five of the 14 programs under J-1, a program administered by DOS. Foreign exchange visitors are expected to work and learn in the U.S., but almost 100,000 are college youth employed in the U.S. as maids and housekeepers in seasonal hotels, including in U.S. national parks under the Summer Work Travel program. Others are au pairs (17,500 in 2015), camp counselors (21,000), or interns (24,000), so that almost 170,000 foreign youth filled seasonal low-skilled jobs in 2015.

This post was published in the most recent Rural Migration News from April 2017.

Rural Migration News summarizes the most important migration-related issues affecting agriculture and rural America. Topics are grouped by category: Rural America, Farm Workers, Immigration, Other and Resources.


There are two editions of Rural Migration News. The paper edition has about 10,000 words and the email version about 20,000 words.


Distribution is by email. If you wish to subscribe, send your email address to ruralmigrationnews-subscribe [at} Current and back issues may be accessed at


The paper edition is available by mail for $30 domestic and $50 foreign for one year and $55 and $95 for a two-year subscription. Make checks payable to Migration Dialogue and send to: Philip Martin, Department of Ag and Resource Economics, University of California, Davis, California 95616 USA.

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Philip Martin is Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California- Davis, chair of the University of California's Comparative Immigration and Integration Program, and editor of the monthly Migration News and the quarterly Rural Migration News.


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