The challenges of agricultural labor management

According to Guadalupe Sandoval, managing director of the California Farm Labor Contractor Association, well over 50 percent of labor is hired directly by farmers. Data from the USDA indicates that 33 percent is provided by contractors.
Of all the elements growers have to deal with, labor,with its combination of regulations and humanrelations, is probably the most complex.

Maud Powell, an area extension agent with Oregon State University’s (OSU) Extension Small Farms Program, taught two four-week courses on agricultural labor management for small farms and vineyards in the winter of 2009 – 2010. The first focused on agricultural labor: the recruitment, hiring and retention of workers; communication; and compliance with state and federal regulations. The second focused on farm internships, especially issues involved in wage law.

“The program had a lot of success,” Powell says. Although the grant that funded it wasn’t renewed, the small farms program is working closely with Rogue Farm Corps in Ashland, Ore., which also offers education programs for new farmers.

Agricultural labor

According to Guadalupe Sandoval, managing director of the California Farm Labor Contractor Association, which advocates for farm contractors, “Well over 50 percent of labor is hired directly by farmers. Data from the USDA indicates that 33 percent is provided by contractors.”

While growers in large centers can find workers in hiring halls with interpreters, lavatories and agreed-upon wages, in smaller areas there’s little or no structure for recruitment. Owners of small farms often rely on networking with neighboring growers, Powell says. If they’re close to their workers, they often can count on them to recruit other family members and friends when they’re needed. It’s easier to attract workers to organic and IPM farms, because there are fewer pesticides, and to small family farms, which tend to have good family values and good stewardship of the land.

“One whole class was about working with Latino workers,” she says. A group visited the class and talked about their experiences with employers, from those who exploited them to those who went to bat for them on immigration issues and helped them with health care.

“People who are able to treat their workers well and have them invested in the farm can have workers come back for 10 or 20 years,” she says. “Think about employees as a resource, not a static asset.” Recognize the ones who have leadership potential, offer them training opportunities and promote them, or find alternative ways to compensate them, such as giving them extra produce or helping pay for a child’s education.

Finding skilled labor is especially difficult for small growers, because these workers prefer to work year-round. One strategy growers can use is to share their workforce with neighboring growers.

“It’s tricky where they’re having crunch times at the same times,” Powell says, but it works well when the peak seasons don’t coincide, for example between a vineyard and a farm with annual vegetables.

In spite of the difficulties, smaller farms do tend to be able to find the workers they need locally, she says. Only one or two farms in the Corvallis area use H-2A visas.

The H-2A Program requires growers who want to hire temporary nonimmigrant workers to file an application with the U.S. Department of Labor stating that there aren’t enough workers available in their area, as well as file an I-129 petition with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Workers outside the country who want temporary farm work must show that they’re admissible into the U.S. Most also have to apply for a visa.

The extension course also covered compliance with state and federal regulations. Some farm labor contractors, agricultural employees, agricultural associations and providers of housing are exempt from the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA) under limited conditions, but most must abide by the act.

According to the MSPA, workers have the right to be paid when their wages are due, to receive itemized written statements of earnings for each pay period and to purchase goods from the source of their choice. In addition, growers must make and keep payroll records for each employee for three years.

If their housing is provided, it must meet federal and state safety and health standards, and the housing information must be presented to them in writing at the time of recruitment. Information about the terms and conditions of occupancy, as well as worker protections, must be posted at the work site.

They have the right to be transported in vehicles that are insured and operated by licensed drivers, and that meet federal and state safety standards. In Oregon, according to the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI), if workers have been recruited and transported for work and no work is available, the grower must provide them with food and lodging until work does become available.

The number of laws and regulations that govern hiring labor is one of the reasons that growers use farm contractors, says Sandoval. It’s also easier to find labor from someone connected to the labor force.

“There’s a variety of farmers who use contractors,” he says, “from very small ones who need only a few workers to large ones who need a lot. Contractors are pretty much everywhere, and if they aren’t nearby, they’ll send crews to wherever you want.” Growers in California can find licensed contractors on the website of the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE):

There’s also a variety of contractors. Some were recently farm workers who decided to move up the ladder. They got licensed, drive their own pickup trucks and sometimes work alongside their crews. Others are large businesses whose owners jump into their plane to visit clients halfway across the state. These owners may speak only English, but they have either Spanish-speaking employees in their offices, bilingual supervisors in the field, or both.

Being able to communicate with workers is a big advantage, Powell says. For growers who want to learn key phrases in Spanish, she recommends a book that’s sold online and may be in some libraries: “Spanish in the Field: Practical Spanish for Ranchers, Farmers, or Vintners,” by Carmen Pella Clough.

Communication extends beyond key phrases, though.

In the class, a group of workers discussed cultural problems between growers and workers, including workers “saving face” by pretending to understand instructions because they don’t want to admit that they don’t understand. They encouraged farmers to demonstrate the way to do a new task, and then ask workers directly if they understood, and then watch them perform the task to make sure they did.

All farm labor contractors must show proof of registration with the U.S. Department of Labor when they recruit migrant and seasonal farm workers. They also have to show workers accurate information about their wages and working conditions before they commit to employment. The terms of the working arrangement must be upheld.

“There are very stringent licensing regulations in California, managed by the DLSE,” Sandoval says. For example, contractors have to pass a test, have a written safety program with Cal/OSHA, have workers’ comp and have their field workers trained in pesticide use by a qualified trainer. They also have to take continuing education courses every year to renew their license.

He suggests that you get references and confirm in the database of your state that the contractor is licensed. In California, the DLSE also has this information (

In addition, he says, many growers and contractors use written contracts.

“I think it’s really important for growers to evaluate the qualifications of the contractor,” he says. “If the contractor doesn’t comply with the regulations, it can result in serious problems for the grower.”


Interns usually don’t have the same work experience or skill level as farm workers. They typically live at the farm and learn farm skills and experience the farming lifestyle in exchange for room, board and a small stipend.

“Internships sound like a good way to get cheap labor, but they’re risky,” Powell says. “It’s illegal to have someone work on a farm without paying them at least minimum wage. We educate farmers using interns about the risks. They’re rarely in compliance with state wage laws.”

In fact, at least one intern in the Willamette Valley has sued, and won, for payment of back wages.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture provides standards for internships. For an unpaid, work-based learning program to qualify as an internship, any productive work that the intern performs must be offset by the grower providing training, education and sufficient supervision. This can be as informal as the interns asking questions while they’re helping the growers with the harvest, Powell says, and as formal as interns and growers sitting together in the evening and looking over the curriculum, with the grower suggesting readings.

Growers cannot derive any immediate advantage from the intern’s work, and interns cannot displace regular employees. They also must obtain workers’ compensation insurance for the interns.

Interns aren’t necessarily entitled to wages for the time they spent in training, or to a job at the end of the training period.

According to the small farms website, one alternative is for growers to pay interns minimum wage and charge them market rates for rent, contributions toward groceries and fees for educational programs. Growers would file all appropriate tax and employment forms and provide a written work agreement between the intern and the grower.

Whatever they decide, “It’s important to make sure expectations are very clear at outset so they know what each of them expects,” Powell says.

The author is a freelance writer based in Altadena, Calif.