Skip to main content

Farm hands needed

A look at the agricultural workforce in the Ninth District reveals a very tight labor market

December 15, 2023


Joe Mahon Director, Regional Outreach
Erick Garcia Luna Director, Regional Outreach
Farmers herding cattle in a pen
Stephen Simpson/Getty Images

Article Highlights

  • Farms across the district have not been spared tribulations from tight labor market
  • An aging workforce and modest participation from foreign workers limit labor availability
  • More than half of ag bankers highlight labor availability as “major challenge” in recent survey

Go anywhere in the Ninth District, and employers will tell you that workers are hard to find. The data agree with those anecdotes. States in the region have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the U.S. and have seen steady growth in employment since rebounding from a sharp pandemic-induced drop in 2020.

However, headline employment statistics focus on “nonfarm” employment. But does the tight labor market similarly affect the agriculture sector?

An overview of available federal data as well as recent survey results from the Minneapolis Fed show that labor availability is indeed similarly challenging on the farm. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to obtain the labor needed to operate,” said an agricultural banker based in Minnesota.

Who’s (not) working on the farm?

A look at the characteristics of farm workers offers some clues to the labor shortage in the Ninth District and across the country.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture collects data on farm workers. Almost none of these data are demographic in nature, concerning characteristics such as age and citizenship status. The U.S. Census Bureau does collect demographic data along with occupational characteristics in its American Community Survey. Together, these data offer a fuller picture of both the number of farm workers and their demographic tendencies.1

One surprising finding about Ninth District farm workers is that relatively few of them are foreign-born, especially in comparison to some other agricultural states. The estimated share of foreign-born workers in animal production in 2021 was 10 percent in Ninth District states. That’s compared with 18 percent nationwide. The difference is even more stark for crop production. Just 5 percent of Ninth District farm labor is foreign-born (the highest in 10 years), compared with 32 percent nationally (Figure 1).

Loading figure 1...

Another important trait of farm workers is that they are aging. According to census data, the median age of agricultural workers in district states rose from 51 in 2012 to 56 in 2021. That rise was much faster than in the rest of the country, where the median age increased from 47 to 48 within the same period.

A closer look suggests that this aging is due in part to a hollowing out of the middle of the age distribution. The share of both livestock and crop workers ages 45–54 steadily declined over the past decade. Representation among the youngest age groups also declined. While the share of workers ages 25–44 increased some, the bulk of the increase was among those older than 55 (Figure 2).

Loading figure 2...

Help wanted

This combination of a modest inflow of immigrant workers and an aging workforce leads to major labor concerns for farm operators. The Minneapolis Fed’s most recent survey of agricultural credit conditions provides a window into this matter.

The survey asked agricultural bankers about labor availability among their farm clients. A strong majority—63 percent—indicated that it is a serious challenge. Most of the remainder said it is a minor challenge.

Agricultural work is mostly seasonal in nature. But finding long-term or permanent workers is especially hard, according to two-thirds of lenders. They ranked that as more challenging than finding temporary help.

Respondents also noted the availability of livestock workers is more limited than crop workers.

Over the last five years, a large majority said labor availability has worsened. More than a third of bankers surveyed called it “much” worse and another 44 percent “a little” worse. Only 17 percent said labor availability is the same as five years ago.

But there is also some sense that recent labor conditions aren’t getting a lot worse. More than 60 percent said that labor availability hasn’t changed much over the past year, and 37 percent said it has gotten a little worse. As a lender in Montana put it, even though the situation hasn’t changed much over the last two years, “farm labor has been increasingly harder to find.”

Wages on the rise

Given labor constraints, bankers noted that farm wages have increased. USDA data confirm that to be the case in the regions that include Ninth District states (Figure 3).

Loading figure 3...

Real wages for farm workers just barely outpaced inflation over the decade from 2003–2013. Pay has climbed faster over the past 10 years, with a sharper acceleration over the past five.

Even though livestock workers are reportedly harder to find, wages for crop workers have grown at a faster rate recently. Crop workers in the USDA’s “Lake states” region (which includes Minnesota and Wisconsin) have seen wages increase by more than 11 percent after inflation. Wages for livestock workers in the “Mountain I” region (which includes Montana) grew less than 1 percent over this period.

An aging workforce, slower population growth in rural areas, and limited prospects for increased immigration to the region may pose ongoing labor challenges. There are no obvious, easy, or quick solutions for farm operators.

Technological advancements may offer some relief. Even as “better and bigger machinery helps reduce labor needs,” said a Minnesota banker, come harvest time, “seasonal help is still needed on most farms.”


1 Estimates include family and hired farm workers. Calculations were made using public use microdata from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey’s 5-year estimates. To calculate the share of foreign-born workers in farm occupations, the authors included U.S. citizens by naturalization and non-citizens of the U.S. (“4” and “5” on the CIT variable) and focused on those in crop production and animal production and aquaculture (“111” and “112” on the NAICSP variable). Age brackets were calculated using the AGEP variable. All estimates were calculated using the person weights on the PWGTP variable.

Joe Mahon
Director, Regional Outreach

Joe Mahon is a Minneapolis Fed regional outreach director. Joe’s primary responsibilities involve tracking several sectors of the Ninth District economy, including agriculture, manufacturing, energy, and mining.

Erick Garcia Luna
Director, Regional Outreach

Erick Garcia Luna is a Minneapolis Fed regional outreach director. In this role, he focuses on gathering and analyzing economic intelligence on the regional economy to help inform the work of the Fed. Follow him on Twitter @ErickGarciaLuna.