Projects Funded for Sara Neagu-Reed

2020-2021

The Impacts of COVID-19 on the Farm Labor Supply and Farming Decisions in California

  • Diane Charlton
  • Sara Neagu-Reed
  • Bryan Little
  • J. Edward Taylor

Abstract

Specific Objectives of the Project:

  1. To analyze the extent to which the COVID-19 health crisis affected California farmers’ access to farm workers in 2020.
  2. To analyze how COVID-19 affected farming decisions in California in 2020.
  3. To analyze how the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to influence the use of labor-saving technologies in the future.

Summary of Results:
We surveyed a broad sample of fruit, vegetable, horticultural, and nursery farmers covering California and the entire United States, in conjunction with the California Farm Bureau Federation, the National Council of Agricultural Employers, and American Hort. Surveyed farmers reported significant labor shortages. For example, in a national survey, nearly two-thirds of the farmers reported having difficulty hiring all the workers they wanted to produce their main commodity in their highest revenue producing state during 2021. The average farmer who would have normally hired 100 workers but faced a labor shortage would have only been able to hire 82 during 2021.

Farmers reported incurring additional costs related to COVID-19, including purchasing additional personal protective equipment, extra cleaning and sanitation activities, and adding sanitation facilities for workers. Some farmers reported spending thousands of dollars on each employee. COVID-19 played a role in the labor shortage issues that California farmers reported, with over half of the farmers who experienced a shortage indicating that COVID exacerbated it. Farmers reported a number of factors related to COVID-19 that contributed to labor shortages, including direct exposure to the virus, shelter-in-place orders, and generous unemployment benefits that allowed workers to obtain more income by not working. Most farmers who faced labor shortages indicated that the labor shortages were worse in 2020 than 2019.

H-2A workers are increasingly common, consistent with a USDA Economic Research Service study (co-authored by Professor Rutledge) revealing that H-2A visa use is rapidly expanding (Castillo, Martin, and Rutledge, 2022). There is no sign of this trend slowing down. H-2A workers continued to constitute a small share of labor use among California survey respondents. However, the H-2A program in California is expanding rapidly (Martin and Rutledge, 2022).

A significant share of farmers reported using a new labor-saving technology to help them mitigate problems stemming from labor scarcity. More than a third nation-wide made changes to their product mix to reduce labor costs. One in three California farmers reported implementing new labor-saving technologies in 2020, and among these, the main labor-saving technology was used on an average of 66% of their main crop production in their main county. The most oft-cited reasons for using labor-saving technologies and mechanical harvest aids, respectively, were rising labor costs and the ability to harvest faster.

Overall, this project found that many farmers face significant issues stemming from a lack of labor, while many are struggling to navigate the situation. Farmers are clearly making efforts to mitigate production and profit losses resulting from labor shortages; however, this issue continues to be a major challenge for fruit, vegetable and horticultural and nursery farmers in California and throughout the United States.

As background for these studies, we conducted detailed reviews of the changing agricultural workforce in the US and abroad, why it is happening, and its implications (Charlton, Rutledge and Taylor 2021); the agricultural labor supply response (Hill, Ornelas and Taylor 2021); and the future of work in agri-food (Christiaensen, Rutledge and Taylor 2021).