- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
Led by Philip Martin, professor emeritus in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis, scientists analyzed all Social Security numbers reported by farm employers in 2014. The total number of farmworkers employed in California in 2014 was 829,300. The number of full-time equivalent jobs was 410,900.
“We have lots of people who do farm work in California,” Martin said. “If we could use more of them year round, we would not have to always be looking for immigrants.”
Interest in farmworkers and farm employment is growing in California and in the nation. Comments about illegal immigration by presidential candidates and a new law under consideration in California to require overtime pay for farmworkers have made farm employment part of a national conversation. California's labor-intensive fruit and vegetable production systems, the tightening of border controls and proposals to give some unauthorized workers a temporary legal status have also fueled interest.
“Many farm employers argue that there are farm labor shortages, while worker advocates counter that there is only a shortage of wages to attract and retain farmworkers,” Martin said. “Our objective was to provide a clearer picture of California's agricultural workforce by determining the actual number of wage and salary workers in agriculture.”
The research was based on information from the state's Employment Development Department, which collects data on farmworkers and wages paid when it collects unemployment insurance taxes from employers.
The results of the 2014 analysis are compared with previous analyses of farm employment going back to 1990. The data reflect a shift over the last 30 years away from direct-hire employment on crop farms and toward employment by farm labor contractors.
“Crop support services, like farm labor contractors, surpassed on-farm hires for the first time in 2007,” Martin said. “Since 2010, average employment reported by crop support establishments has been rising by 10,000 a year.”
In 2014, nonfarm crop support firms brought an average of 205,000 farmworkers to crop farms, while direct-hires on crop farms was 175,000.
“Our data show that California has a remarkably stable workforce,” Martin said. “We found that most farmworkers are attached to one farm employer, often a labor contractor who moves them from farm to farm.”
Average earnings for all workers who held at least one farm job during the year was over $19,000 in 2014, while average earnings of those who had their maximum earnings in agriculture was $16,500. Farmworkers who were employed by farm labor contractors had the lowest average earnings at $12,719.
In addition to Martin, the article was authored by Muhammad Akhtar, Brandon Hooker and Marc Stockton of the California Employment Development Department. California Agriculture journal is the peer-reviewed research journal of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources.
- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
The study is led by Robert Krieger, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Entomology at UC Riverside. Krieger is an expert in environmental and occupational toxicology.
This summer, Krieger and a team of researchers spent nearly three weeks in Santa Maria with workers at DB Specialty Farms. The workers wear gloves as they pick strawberries. Before each break, their gloves are collected and frozen for later lab analysis.
“We’ve found that pesticides are transferred to the gloves during normal work and we’re measuring the amounts that are transferred in hopes that we can use it to measure total exposure,” Krieger said. “The real question is how much exposure occurs, how much is OK, and how little occurs under normal conditions of use.”
The team is also collecting samples of strawberries harvested by the workers and samples of leaves.
In order to understand uptake and excretion, the workers are asked to collect urine for 24-hour periods after working in sprayed fields. To be certain any sign of pesticides in the urine came from work exposure, the researchers have also collected 24-hour urine samples from spouses or roommates of the field workers to assess dietary or home exposure.
“The levels of exposure are determined by how much is applied, how much remains on the crop and how much is transferred to people. We’ve independently measured those and came up with an assessment of how much a person is exposed to during their normal work,” Krieger said.
The research focuses on two pesticides: the organophosphate malathion and the pyrethroid fenpropathrin. After the pesticides are applied, there is a three-day waiting period before harvest gets under way. In the project, as soon as the workers are back in the field, the monitoring begins.
Studies that Krieger has conducted over the past 18 years show that low, safe levels of pesticide are absorbed and rapidly excreted by harvesters. Breakdown products of the pesticides – parts of the pesticide molecule that are not toxic – can be measured in the urine, but it is not known whether the pesticide broke down on the plant, before the workers were exposed, or if the workers’ metabolism broke down the pesticides.
“Those breakdown products are not toxic, but if they are absorbed, they will appear in the urine and we can’t tell whether a plant made it or a person made it and that complicates our analysis and that’s one of the new areas that we’re investigating in 2012,” Krieger said.
By comparing the gloves, fruit, leaves and urine and using sophisticated metabolic chemistry in the laboratory analyses, the researchers will be able to reconstruct how much exposure there was during the work day.
If the research concludes that analyzing gloves is a useful way to measure worker exposure, gloves could become an important tool for farmers and regulators. Another probable area of impact from the study is in verifying the levels of exposure, which the researchers are finding to be very low.
“These workers have very low levels of pesticide exposure. And in fact, they’re the best-studied workers with respect to pesticide exposure in agriculture,” Krieger said. “That gives us confidence that the exposure is not having a health impact.”
Definitive results from the August study are expected in about six months.
The research program has been sponsored by strawberry growers of the California Strawberry Commission and the Personal Chemical Exposure Program, UC Riverside. The current Santa Maria research is possible by the involvement of DB Specialty Farms and Safari Farms of Santa Maria, and PrimusLabs.
The research was approved by the Institutional Review Board of UC Riverside and the California Environmental Protection Agency. All the participation is voluntary and the farmworkers and their spouses or roommates are compensated for the inconvenience of urine collection. They receive $25 for each 24-hour collection and a $100 bonus for completing all 10 urine collections.
In addition to the extra pay, the study volunteers benefit by helping improve pesticide safety for themselves and their colleagues.
“These workers are doing a service to other workers by allowing us to measure the amount of exposure that occurs during normal work,” Krieger said.
View video of the on-farm research below:
- Posted By: Sandra Willard
- Written by: Eve Hightower, (530) 752-8664, email@example.com
“A sustainable food system is healthy and safe for everyone, including all those who work the land,” said Tom Tomich, director of SAREP. “As SAREP continues to support sustainable agriculture research, we look forward to identifying research opportunities that will improve farmworker conditions.”
California farmworkers face many challenges at work and in their communities. Nearly a quarter of California farmworker families live in poverty, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. While farmworkers play a crucial role in feeding Californians, food insecurity is among the many challenges they face daily. Farm work is one of the most hazardous occupations in the state, but nearly 70 percent of California farmworkers have no health insurance, according to a California Institute for Rural Studies report.
SAREP aims to help researchers add context to these numbers by interviewing members of organizations that work with farmworkers and other stakeholders. Participants will be asked to suggest the types of research, education and communication projects they would find most helpful as they work to improve farm laborers’ working and living conditions. The research agenda is scheduled to be completed by September 2012.
“Projects such as this – creating a research agenda with the participation of people who will ultimately use the information for their work – is inspired by the University of California’s land grant mission to serve society,” said Gail Feenstra, SAREP food systems coordinator. “SAREP was founded to help ensure all California agricultural interests, particularly the underserved voices, are supported through scientific research, education and outreach.”
Research regarding California farmworker issues has been conducted, but there is more to do. SAREP aims to assist both researchers and farmworkers by identifying research that workers and community organizations would find most useful.
In addition to identifying research topics, key stakeholders and potential partners and funders, SAREP is forming an advisory committee to guide its farmworker research and outreach efforts.
SAREP provides leadership and support for scientific research and education in agricultural and food systems that are economically viable, conserve natural resources and biodiversity, and enhance the quality of life in the state's communities.
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Media contact: Gail Feenstra, (530) 752-8408, firstname.lastname@example.org.