Skip to Main navigation Skip to Left navigation Skip to Main content Skip to Footer

University of Minnesota Extension

Extension > Agriculture > Dairy Extension > Employees > The face of agricultural labor in Minnesota

Print Icon Email Icon Share Icon

The face of agricultural labor in Minnesota

Chuck Schwartau

Published in Dairy Star July 8, 2006

It's no secret the composition of agriculture's workforce in has been changing over the years. A look at the workforce offers some interesting facts, challenges and opportunities.

The USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) annually reports on farm labor and farm-related labor in the country. Similarly, the U. S. Department of Labor (DOL) conducts regular surveys of agricultural workers. The DOL report is the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS).

According to the ERS report, Minnesota's agricultural production workforce in 2002 was just over 97,000 people. Of this number, 80,800 were considered farm proprietors and 16,500 wage or salaried workers. That total number is about 37,000 less than 25 years ago.

The DOL survey only includes crop workers, so it has to be used with a bit of caution. But there are some findings in their reports from several years that are consistent enough to reasonably accept some of their findings which could apply to livestock workers as well.

In 2002, the DOL reported 78% of the crop workers were born outside the U.S. Seventy-five percent (75%) of all the workers were born in Mexico. One only need look at the employees on many of the livestock farms in Minnesota to determine this figure is probably not much different here.

Many of these foreign-born workers are long term employees on our farms with 29% of them first arriving in the U.S. 15 or more years ago. Another 30% of the workers first arrived between 5 and 14 years ago. Some of those may have returned to their homelands for a period of time, but they returned to continue employment in U.S. agriculture.

A hotly debated political topic today is the number of those who are unauthorized workers (not possessing valid work permits from the Immigration Service). In 2002, 25% of the foreign-born workers in the U.S. have achieved citizenship; 21% have legal work permits; 1% have other valid permits (student, etc); and 53% are unauthorized. That situation of unauthorized workers has caused a great deal of family stress. In some cases, unauthorized workers have been returned to their homeland while other members of their family are permitted to stay here. In other cases, workers who are unauthorized do not go to see their families because they expect to have problems returning to the U.S. to work again. The result either way is stress on families and workers which is likely to affect the work done.

Birthplace of U.S. crop agricultural workers

Birthplace of U.S. crop agricultural workers

Spanish is the native language of 81% of foreign-born workers. English is reported by 18% as their native language. On the average, the highest grade level of education completed was 7th grade, and most achieved that level in their native land. The NAWS has found that over the years, the level of education completed has been climbing, with 37% completing 11th grade in 2002 as compared to 23% in 1994 The percentage of these workers who completed a 12 year education, however, drops dramatically to just 3% in 2002.

Based on classifications from the National Adult Literacy Survey, these education levels would suggest that 85% of foreign-born farm workers would have difficulty obtaining information from printed materials in any language. About 10% consider themselves fluent speakers of English.

Although the DOL survey was conducted among crop workers, it shouldn't be a stretch to assume Minnesota's agriculture work force is similar. Implications for Minnesota farmers are many. These include a workforce under some stress because of immigration issues beyond their control. These workers came to Minnesota to achieve a better life for themselves and their families. If they happen to be unauthorized, the stress can be very high.

The typical level of education means training often has to be done in a visual manner and with an interpreter. Video training and demonstrations will usually be more effective than written materials that cannot be read, even if they are in the workers' native language. The level of education may also affect the degree or speed of comprehension when training is offered. When workers come from a culture or background where technology is much less than in the United States, they may also take longer to become comfortable using the common technologies on our modern farms.

Another implication for Minnesota farmers employing foreign-born labor is the need to stay on top of the relevant regulations. Be sure proper documentation is kept for all your hirees (U.S. or foreign-born). At this time it is not your responsibility to verify the authenticity of documents, but you must ask for them before hiring and you should keep a copy for your files. The political debates are important to watch, though, as regulations could change at any time.

The ERS and DOL reports can be viewed on-line at:

  • © Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
  • The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer. Privacy