How many farmworkers are employed in the United States?

This is the first blog post in a series on farmworker employment and wages.

Basic facts about the employment of farmworkers, and the wages they earn, are often difficult to obtain and understand. Media coverage and even policymakers working on agricultural issues often mistake or confuse key data points. This is understandable, given that employment and wage data in agriculture must be pieced together from multiple data sets, which are often incomplete and inconsistent and provide information about different segments of the farm workforce.

This blog post is the first in a series that will attempt to address this information gap by providing some basic facts and information about farmworker employment and wages. I begin by addressing one of the most basic yet confusing questions about farmworkers: How many are employed in the United States?

There are roughly 2.4 million farmworkers nationwide

Data from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW) show that average annual employment of workers who are employed on farms that report to state unemployment insurance agencies was just under 1.3 million in 2022—essentially unchanged from the previous year. But QCEW also estimated that there were an additional 300,000 “wage and salary” farmworkers not included in their data, suggesting total average employment of 1.6 million in 2022. This is average annual employment, however, which is not the same as the number of unique farmworkers. What that means is that there are 1.6 million jobs that are “full-time equivalent” farms, meaning jobs that would allow a worker to work full-time and year-round.

As a result, that underestimates the number of unique farmworkers due to high seasonality and turnover. For the number of individual farmworkers, we can look to the Census of Agriculture (COA), which asks farm operators and owners how many workers they employ directly; in 2017, farmers reported hiring 2.4 million farmworkers. However, the COA does not report workers who are brought to farms by nonfarm employers such as labor contractors, and can double-count workers employed by two farms, so even the 2.4 million counted by the COA does not provide an exact count of unique farmworkers—although it is likely the best available estimate.

There are 1.5 farmworkers for every full-time equivalent job in agriculture nationwide

Average employment is often confused with the unique number of farmworkers. In order to better understand it, we can devise a ratio of farmworkers to full-time equivalent jobs, as some scholars have done. Industries where there is seasonality and high rates of turnover are likely to have higher ratios—agriculture is one of these industries, and the results bear that out.

For example, nationwide, if average annual employment in agriculture is 1.6 million (as the QCEW shows) and if we assume that the number of farmworkers is 2.4 million (as the COA shows, although we know the number is likely higher), then we arrive at a ratio of 1.5 farmworkers for every full-time equivalent job in agriculture.

The ratio varies by state, and California is perhaps the best example of a state where we have a better picture of the number of unique farmworkers as compared with jobs, thanks to an analysis from Philip Martin at the University of California, Davis, and two colleagues from the California Employment Development Department. They looked at data on farm employment from unemployment insurance data, which showed that average monthly farm employment in California was 425,400 in 2016.

They then looked at Social Security numbers reported by agricultural employers when paying unemployment insurance taxes and were able to tie each number to the industries each worker was employed in and where they had their highest earnings. Doing that allowed them to identify 989,500 workers with at least one job in agriculture. That means the number of farmworkers was 2.3 times the number of full-time equivalent jobs in agriculture in California (989,500 divided by 425,400).

The H-2A visa program

Another significant segment of the farm workforce is employed through the H-2A visa program, which allows farm employers to hire temporary migrant workers if they anticipate a shortage of U.S. workers to fill temporary and seasonal jobs. Over 90% of H-2A workers are employed on crop farms, according to DOL data. The size of the program has grown rapidly, quadrupling over the past decade, as shown in Figure A. Three federal agencies are involved in H-2A, which is why three separate sources of information are shown in Figure A.

There is no exact count of the number of unique individuals employed with H-2A visas in the United States in a given year. In 2022, there were nearly 372,000 jobs certified by DOL for employers seeking to hire H-2A workers, which is the first step employers must complete. The next step in the process is filing a petition to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. According to USCIS’s H-2A Employer Data Hub, in 2022 there were over 400,000 petitions approved for H-2A workers, 345,000 of which were for new H-2A jobs. The remaining 55,000 represented “continuing employment” in H-2A, which includes workers who either extended their stay in the United States for an additional season, began working for another employer, or changed the terms of their employment with the same employer. The final step in the process when hiring an H-2A worker is applying for a visa with the State Department. In 2022, the State Department issued almost 300,000 visas to H-2A workers, allowing them to travel to the United States to commence employment.

The best way to estimate the number of H-2A workers is to assume that H-2A visas issued by the State Department represent the number of individual H-2A workers in the United States. But some of the 55,000 USCIS petitions approved for continuing employment are for H-2A workers who remained in the country and should be added to the number of visas issued, though the USCIS data on petitions for continuing employment do not identify H-2A workers who extended their stays.

We can also estimate the share of the farm workforce that is comprised of H-2A workers. We know from DOL certification data that H-2A workers were employed for an average of six months out of the year. If we use a low-end estimate that there were 300,000 H-2A workers—based on the number of visas issued—who were each employed for six months, that means that H-2A workers represented close to 10% of all average farmworker employment but roughly about 15% of crop employment on U.S. farms.

The H-2A visa program has more than quadrupled over the past decade: H-2A jobs certified and visas issued, 2005–2022, and petitions approved, 2015–2022

Year Jobs Certified Visas Issued Petitions Approved
2005 48,336 31,892
2006 59,110 37,149
2007 76,814 50,791
2008 82,099 64,404
2009 86,014 60,112
2010 79,011 55,921
2011 77,246 55,384
2012 85,248 65,345
2013 98,821 74,192
2014 116,689 89,274
2015 139,832 108,144 154,262
2016 165,741 134,368 175,171
2017 200,049 161,583 215,079
2018 242,762 196,409 279,482
2019 257,667 204,801 302,422
2020 275,430 213,394 308,877
2021 317,619 257,898 339,314
2022 371,619 298,336 402,929


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