The “Family Farm,” Industrialized Agriculture and Farmworkers’ Labor Rights

It’s true that most of our food grown in the U.S. can be considered to come from “family farms.” But many of those “family farms” are incorporated and are sizeable businesses.  

The exclusion of farmworkers from many employment laws is justified partly on a misunderstanding about the business of agriculture.  Farmworkers mostly work for big farms, not the “small family farm” of yore or the new wave of urban and semi-urban growers of the produce in your Community Supported Agriculture delivery.  

In a new report, “Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service discusses the trend toward larger farms, which the report notes is longer than 30 years.  The industrialization of agriculture was famously described in “Factories in the Field,” a book by Carey McWilliams published in 1939.   

Many, many small family farms dot rural landscapes but their share of farm production is tiny and they don’t employ many farmworkers.  There are about 2.1 million farms in the U.S. The report states that “nearly 1 million farms—or 48 percent of the total — had GCFI [gross cash farm income, a measure of annual sales] of less than $10,000, and collectively accounted for less than 1 percent of production.”

Of those 2.1 million farms, just 63,500 had sales of $1 million or more per year.  Yet, that group, amounting to 3% of farms, accounted for 51% of the value of all farms’ sales of agricultural products.  

And of those 3% of farms with $1 million or more in annual sales, 90% can be characterized as “family farms” in the sense that they are owned or controlled by a family even if the farm is technically owned by limited liability company (LLC) or corporation.  

Most farmworkers are laboring in the labor-intensive sector of agriculture, which includes fruits, vegetables, and nursery (or horticultural) products, which are referred to as “specialty crops.”  

Specialty crop growers also have consolidated into larger farms.  “Very large farms,” those with sales of $5 million or more per year account for 48.3% of the value of production (sales).  An additional 27.8% of sales come from “large farms,” defined as those with sales of $1 million $5 million per year. The USDA ERS report is available here.1  

A separate economic analysis estimates that a majority of the nation’s farmworkers are employed on about 10,000 large farms across the U.S.  The roughly 8,200 farms in the U.S. that had payrolls of hired workers of $500,000 or more accounted for about half of the nation’s payroll expenses for hired farm labor.2

The anachronistic exemptions in employment laws for agriculture should end.  “Family farms” may employ most farmworkers, but other businesses – especially medium and large businesses -- are not exempt from employment laws merely because the owner is a family.   Farmworkers deserve the job standards, legal protections and respect that we extend to other occupations’ workers.

1. The USDA ERS report is co-authored by James M. MacDonald, Robert A. Hoppe, and Doris Newton.

2. Philip Martin, Issue Brief:  Immigration and Farm Labor, (Migration Policy Institute 2017), p. 2 and fn. 1.