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On Cesar Chavez Day, we look at farmworkers’ new challenges

Saturday, March 31 is Cesar Chavez Day (his birthday) in California.
In 1962, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta joined the organizing efforts of the Filipino farmworkers and founded the National Farm Workers Association (later to become the United Farm Workers, or UFW) in California. Their worker-led movement drew national attention to farmworkers’ struggles and laid the groundwork for other farmworker unions and organizations. Chavez died in 1993 at age 66.
Farmworkers have come a long way since earning 9 cents an hour to pick California’s grapes in the 1960s. Today, they face a whole new set of challenges.
Expenses for farm labor
Here is a 2012 chart on what farm labor is as a percentage of total farm production expenses, by county. The national average is 8.2 percent and the average for California is 16.6 percent:

Agriculture is California’s biggest industry and has been among the first industries to feel the effects of fewer undocumented immigrants entering the United States. About 70 percent of hired workers are born in Mexico and as much as 50 percent are undocumented workers.
The California Farm Bureau Federation reported in 2016 that more than half of farm employers responding to a survey experienced labor shortages as high as 20 percent in the past year.
Needing more help
Half of the farmers reporting labor shortages increased wages and added benefits to retain workers, but not all plants are picked by human hands. A third of farmers used more labor-saving machines and another third investigated mechanization. More vineyards are utilizing grape harvesting machines. Grapes are California’s second most valuable commodity at $5.58 billion in 2016.

Oxbow International

A mechanical wine-grape harvester like the one in the photo above (the Oxbo 6120) can pick and de-stem grapes in the fields. Most high-end wineries are sticking with hand-picked grapes for now.
Most farm labor expenses are paid by relatively few farms. In California, 33,950 farms reported $5.9 billion in hired labor expenses. 7,600 farms each paid $100,000 or more for hired labor, which accounted for 92 percent of the $5.9 billion.
Labor by farm type, labor cost, number of farms

Fruits, nuts and berries, $25.6 billion, 35,900
Vegetables, potatoes, melons, $16.8 billion, 6,000
Horticultural specialties (greenhouse), $14.8 billion, 3,400
Source: U.S. Census of Agriculture, 2017

Employment of farmworkers for crops, nursery and greenhouses
In 2016, California had 182,570 farm workers, more than 160,000 than the next highest state, Florida (13,350). This does not include migrant workers. The hourly mean wage in California was $11.36 and the annual mean wage was $23,630.
1. California: 182,570
2. Florida: 13,350
3. Arizona: 12,390
4. Washington: 10,490
5. Oregon: 5,460

Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2016
United farm workers union membership
Membership in the UFW during the 1970s and 1980s (while Cesar Chavez was alive) was said to be more than 50,000. The membership has declined in recent years. According to, the UFW had about 8,000 members in 2015. Members pay about 3 percent of their wages.

Dangerous business
In 2015, 4,836 people died from industry-related deaths. Farming, fishing and forestry have the highest death rates of any industry.

These jobs have the highest rates of injury and illness according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’, 2015 survey of occupational injuries and illnesses.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, United Farm Workers,, National Center of Farmworker Health, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Environmental Working Group, U.S. Agricultural Census, Rural Migration News, UC Davis, The Associated Press
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