Projects Funded for Zachariah Rutledge


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

J. Edward Taylor, Zachariah Rutledge, Bryan Little, and Diane Charlton


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).

The Effects of a Declining Farm Labor Supply on Fruit and Vegetable Production in California

Pierre Mérel and Zachariah Rutledge


Specific Objectives of the Project
1. To quantify the extent to which decreases in the supply of farm workers affect the quantity of fruit and vegetable crops produced in California.
2. To determine how reductions in the supply of farm workers affects the number of acres of fruits and vegetables that can be harvested in California.
3. To quantify how much farm revenue is lost because of reduced access to farm workers in California.

Project Report/Summary of Results
Recent studies point to a decline in the U.S. farm labor supply driven by demographic and structural changes in Mexico, increased U.S. border security measures, and a decline in the number of farm workers willing to engage in follow-the-crop migration, which has reduced the geographic reach of local farm labor markets. A smaller farm labor supply has the potential to reduce access to safe and healthy produce, increase the nation’s reliance upon foreign producers, and reduce the profitability of U.S. farm operations. In order to examine the extent to which changes in the farm labor supply may affect crop production, we estimate panel regressions using a rich set of production and employment data from California counties.

This study brings together three datasets pertaining respectively to crop production, farm employment, and weather. Our empirical strategy deploys fixed-effects panel regression
models at the crop-county-year level of aggregation, where the regressor of interest measures county-year farm employment during the peak harvest season. The identifying
variation comes from differences across counties in the evolution of employment about smooth county-level trends, net of weather effects. The fact that crop employment, an equilibrium value, is used as the explanatory variable in place of the underlying yet unobserved labor supply variable causes important identification challenges. We use an equilibrium displacement model to gain insight into the bias likely to affect our empirical estimates. Our regression results reveal statistically significant upper bounds for the
effects of labor supply shifts on the production of hand harvested fruit and vegetable (FV) crops, but, as expected, not on that of mechanically-harvested nut or field crops.

Our empirical results indicate that a ten percent decrease in the farm labor supply (in terms of the number of workers willing to supply labor at a given price) causes at most a 4.2% decrease in hand-harvested FV production in the top 10 producing counties, which together produce 86% of the value of all labor-intensive crops in the state. Reduced production is primarily channeled through a decrease in the number of acres harvested (- 2.8%), although we also uncover small yield effects (-1.4%). Impacts on the total value of production appear to be concentrated in the top 5 counties (Monterey, Fresno, Tulare, Kern, and Ventura). There, a ten percent decrease in the farm labor supply causes at most a 5.5% decrease in production value.

Although the bounds for FV production are economically meaningful, they indicate that the impacts of a declining farm labor supply will likely be limited in the foreseeable future. These effects are perhaps best exemplified by focusing on the top 5 producing counties, which produce 67% of the value of all labor-intensive crops in the state. Recent estimates suggest that the U.S. farm labor supply is shrinking by about one percent each year. A decline in the farm labor supply of that magnitude in the top 5 counties could cause a loss of 60,000 tons of hand-harvested FV each year. Under the assumption that the decrease in hand harvested FV production is not replaced by the production of other crops, production value losses of an additional 0.55% per year for the 69 crops we consider in those counties could add up to as much as $3.8 billion, or 3.0% of the total value of production, over the course of a decade. Our analysis also suggests that harvest mechanization could provide an alternative to the use of hand-harvest labor in a time of labor scarcity, provided that technologies are advanced enough to prevent unacceptable damage to fragile FV crops.


Farmworkers and Nonfarm Work: How Many Are Leaving and Why

Pierre Mérel and Zachariah Rutledge


Specific Objectives of the Project:
The objectives of this research are to (1) quantify past adaptation to climate change in United States field crop production, (2) estimate the long-run consequences of climate change on this type of agriculture, and (3) assess the potential of one specific adaptation, double-cropping, to attenuate the potential losses resulting from climate change.

Project Report/Summary of Results:
We have developed a theoretical framework whereby agricultural production is related to both contemporaneous weather and long-run climate through simple quadratic functions. The framework implies a long-run response function to climate that is the outer envelope of short-run responses to weather conditional on climate. Applying this framework to a 66-year panel of yields and weather, we simultaneously estimate short- and long-run responses to climate for the United States (US) corn sector. We find evidence of significant climatic adaptation. In the case of temperature exposure (captured through growing degree days), traditional “myopic” panel methods that do not explicitly model climate adaptation nonetheless deliver estimates similar to those of our estimated long-run response. We formally show that this is due to the large cross-sectional variation in climate temperature relative to locational weather fluctuations. In contrast, for precipitation, which exhibits larger year-to-year variation relative to cross-sectional variation, models that do not account for climatic adaptation deliver estimates that are biased, but can be viewed as an average of the long- and short-run responses.

In complementary work, we focus on one specific adaptive action: double cropping. Although prior agronomic research suggests that climate change may expand the area suitable for double cropping in the US, there is relatively little empirical evidence of the relationship between climate and farmers’ decisions to double crop. We link high-resolution land cover data with detailed soil and climate data to explain farmers' propensity to double-crop soybeans with winter wheat in the Eastern United States. We find small and slightly negative effects of warming on double-cropped acreage. A fixed-effects panel model of county yields further indicates that yields of double-cropped soybeans are about 9.9% lower than those of single-cropped soybeans. Accounting for both of these effects, we conclude that double cropping is unlikely to offset negative impacts of climate change on US crop production.


The Impacts of a Declining Farm Labor Supply on Farming in California

J. Edward Taylor, Zachariah Rutledge, and Diane Charlton


Specific Objectives of the Project: Objective
1: To estimate recent and future trends in California farm wages.
2: To analyze the farm labor supply response to changes in farm wages.
3: To explore how increases in California farm wages affect the adoption of labor-saving technologies, the mix of labor-intensive crop production, and the employment of H-2A visa workers.

Project Report/Summary of Results
The funds provided through this grant enabled us to develop and implement an online survey of California farmers to study how they are adapting to the reduced availability of farmworkers. This survey was developed with the cooperation of the California Farm Bureau Federation (Sara Neagu-Reed and Bryan Little), who helped develop the survey and sent it to their members and affiliated grower groups on our behalf. The survey was tailored to elicit information related to (i) the extent to which farmers have had to increase wages to retain an adequate workforce, (ii) the use of farm labor contractors and the H-2A visa program, (iii) changes in acreage resulting from higher wages or reduced access to farmworkers, (iv) the adoption of labor-saving technologies, and (v) changes in cultivation practices resulting from labor scarcity. Over 1000 farmers responded to the survey. Some key findings from the survey include evidence that (i) the rate at which farmers have to pay higher wages to retain a sufficient workforce is increasing, (ii) the use of farm labor contractors and the H-2A visa program is expanding, (iii) some farmers are reducing acreage dedicated to labor-intensive crops and are switching into less labor-intensive crops like nuts and grain/row crops, (iv) many farmers (about 1/3 in our survey) have started using labor-saving technologies for the first time during the past few years, and (v) farmers are increasingly having to change cultivation practices as a result of reduced access to workers, including reducing or delaying pruning, weeding, and harvesting. Additional work will quantify the effects of labor shortages and higher wages on these various outcomes, but the survey format was tailored to facilitate these types of analyses and provide the data to conduct them.

We also engaged in a collaborative effort to co-author two Choices Magazine articles, one of which has been accepted for publication (the other is currently under review). The first article conveys the economic theory behind a farmer’s decision to adopt a labor-saving technology in the face of higher wages and includes a discussion about agricultural technologies that have been used and are being developed to help farmers produce with a smaller workforce. The second article discusses trends in farmworker employment and wages and draws upon previous research supported by the Giannini Foundation to provide estimates of how high farm wages will need to increase in order to keep the farm workforce stable.
Taylor and Charlton’s new book, The Farm Labor Problem: A Global Perspective, was published by Elsevier Academic Press in December 2018, with acknowledgement to support from the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics. We created a website to feature the book and other farm labor research; see

There is substantial interest in this area of research, as can be seen by recent invitations for us to present work related to this topic at conferences, including the UC Davis Agriculture and Natural Resource Annual Vegetable Crops meeting, the World Bank’s Future of Work in Agriculture conference, the Department of Labor’s NAWS at 30 conference, and the Gifford Center for Population Studies’ Farm Labor 2019 conference.