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.
Don Villarejo, a leading farm labor researcher, highlighted 40 years of continuity and change in California agriculture and farm labor. The continuities include low incomes and poverty for many seasonal workers, while the changes include fewer and larger growers, more intermediaries who bring workers to farms, and fewer union contracts.
There have been important regulatory changes aimed at protecting farm workers, from the federal MSPA (1974) to the state ALRA (1975), but they have not prevented declining earnings. In 1974, California farm employers reported an average $2.60 per hour, which BLS says is $12.49 in 2014 (http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl), when reported earnings were $11.33. California farm worker earnings were 52 percent of manufacturing worker earnings in both 1974 and 2014 despite a raft of federal and state laws that aimed to protect and empower farm workers.
The shift to hiring workers via farm labor contractors (FLCs) and other intermediaries is also associated with fewer benefits, from housing to health insurance. There were 9,300 farm labor contractors registered with DOL in May 2015, including 4,100 or 43 percent in California.
Between 1975 and 2012, the volume of California fruits and vegetables almost doubled, from 21 million to 40 million tons. Yields rose much faster than acreage, which was 3.1 million for trees and vines in 2012 and almost one million for vegetables and melons. Fruits, vegetables and horticultural specialties accounted for 62 percent of the state's $43 billion in farm sales in 2012.
Changes in agriculture could have led to fewer workers employed for longer periods on one farm. With more trees and vines, double cropping of vegetables, and long-season berry crops, many workers have settled in one area of the state. Farmers report that most of the workers they hire directly are employed more than 150 days on their farms.
However, most workers employed on crop farms are brought there by intermediaries such as FLCs. A worker may be employed by a single FLC, but have very intermittent work, working six days one week and two the next. By outsourcing especially seasonal work, farm employers have less incentive to give seasonal workers more employment, provide housing for seasonal workers, and take other steps stabilize seasonal farm work.
Tulare county had farm sales of over $7 billion in 2015, but 25 percent of families had below-poverty level incomes and 25 percent relied on SNAP or food stamp benefits; over 40 percent of children are in poor households.
This post was an excerpt of the most recent Rural Migration News published in October 2015.
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.
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