A recent study, commissioned by the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), provides research on agricultural labor issues and trends. The study, undertaken by three economists at Iowa State University, provides information regarding current agricultural challenges, opportunities, and future labor needs, particularly in U.S. pork production, but the trends studied pertains to all agriculture as well.

Several approaches were used to assess the labor situation and outlook, including data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, USDA’s Economic Research Service and the Census of Agriculture, to help examine trends in farm wages, the size and trends in labor pools, competition with other employers, and forces in the general economy that all affect farms’ ability to hire and retain employees.

Key finding s of the study found that agriculture has changed dramatically in recent decades, from an industry largely utilizing family labor, to an increasingly capital intensive technology and science-driven one with a significant demand for hired full-time, skilled and unskilled workers.

The demand for labor in agriculture is against a backdrop of increasingly threatening macroeconomic and demographic trends, the researchers found. The most immediate challenge has been the strengthening of the broader U.S. labor market with the U.S. employment rate falling from 10 percent to 2009 to 4.1 percent in early 2018.

In addition, the study found that population growth has been slowing in non-metro counties for decades and large swaths of rural America have had negative growth or loss. Since 2010, the overall non-metro population growth rate has turned negative.  In almost 70 percent of non-metro counties, outmigration and deaths have significantly outpaced births and in-migration.  The aging rural workforce that remains is increasingly unable and unwilling to do the strenuous labor that agricultural work demands.

An important trend that is exacerbating the ever-tightening rural labor markets is the declining flow of immigrants into rural labor markets, the researchers found. Over the last 30 years, the immigration of foreign-born workers offset some of the decline in rural native-born population and labor force.  That trend had likely already reversed even before the recent emergence of political sentiment toward stricter immigration controls and increase enforcement.   In addition, an increasing proportion of the large influx of immigrant workers that came to the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s are aging beyond their prime working years.

These trends, in an environment of tighter immigration rules and enforcement, combined with the negative growth in native-born rural population, almost certainly portend decades of increasingly difficult labor market conditions for all rural agriculture firms, the economists concluded.