North Carolina’s agricultural sector is a historical foundation of the state’s economy, and remains one of most viable industries in the state. North Carolina is the top producer of flue-cured tobacco and sweet potatoes in the United States. More recent examples of top agricultural products include Christmas trees, hogs, trout, and turkeys[1], of which most are grown in eastern counties.[2][3][4]

 The extensive labor involved in sowing, growing and harvesting these agricultural products requires substantial employment.  According to North Carolina State University, agriculture and agribusiness comprise almost one-fifth of the state’s income. [5] It is estimated that the work of one farmworker contributes over $12,000 in profits to the North Carolina economy annually.[6]

Defining Agricultural Labor

Data sources vary in the types of activities they classify as agricultural labor. For our analysis, we have chosen to use the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) definitions. The broadest categorization NAICS uses are two-digit codes, which in this case place agricultural labor in the Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting Sector (NAICS 11). While other industry definitions focus solely on crop production, the NAICS two-digit definition encompasses all of the top agricultural products produced within the state for analysis.[7] Three- and four-digit subsector NAICS definitions break the data up into subgroups of the larger industry. Our team reviewed the three- and four-digit codes to identify specific areas of agricultural work that contain the greatest number of establishments, largest average employment and their corresponding average hourly wage.  

Is Agricultural Work Low-Wage?

As noted above, agricultural work is comprised of a variety of production processes from growing crops and raising and slaughtering animals to packaging these products for consumption. Variations in the types of work are reflected in the wages that each sub sector is paid based on the product being handled and where it is in the production process. In 2012, workers in the high-level Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting Sector (NAICS 11) made an average annual salary of $29,798, or $14.33 per hour, too high to be classified as a low wage industry by our definition. Lower-level three-digit codes also yield the same result. For example, Crop Production (NAICS 111) earned an average annual salary of $24,501, or $11.78 an hour, missing the low-wage cutoff by 44 cents.

These promising wage numbers, however, come with some caveats. The agricultural sector in North Carolina has some unique features that our team believes may lead to underreporting of employment and an overestimation of average wages.

Many agricultural activities are seasonal or temporary, so it is hard to gauge the full employment impact of the sector.  To add to this, through the H2A program, North Carolina farms are able to hire foreign farmworkers under a temporary work visa.[8][9] Workers covered under this program are supposed to earn at least $9.87 per hour, which would be considered a low-wage hourly rate.  Those covered under the H2A program may not be counted due to their limited time as employees.

In addition to temporary work visa holders, much of the agricultural labor force is comprised of migrant, foreign and undocumented farmworkers, which may add to underreporting of employees and wages. The US Department of Labor estimates that approximately 53% (or 2.5 million) farmworkers are undocumented, 25% are US citizens, and 21% are green card holders.[10] According to the North Carolina Farmworker Institute, in 2012, North Carolina ranked sixth in the nation for the number of migrant farmworkers employed during each growing season.[11] Nationally, farmworkers on the East Coast earn approximately 35% less than the national average, which equates to $10,400 for a family in 2012.[12] By definition, migrant farmworkers are transient and move from place to place, meaning they may be missed by employment counts as well.

What Does this Mean for the State of Low-Wage Work in NC?

Agricultural work did not appear as a low-wage industry in our study. However, due to several features of the industry and its workforce, we sense that there is underreporting of employment and overestimation of wages for agricultural workers. The nature of agricultural work as seasonal or temporary, and the high numbers of migrant and immigrant laborers who work in the industry, make it likely that agricultural work should be considered low-wage. Any policy work that seeks to address the struggles of low-wage workers should take agricultural workers into account.

[8], [12] Ibid.

To learn more about farmworkers in our state:

·      North Carolina Farmworker Institute

·      North Carolina Farmworker Project

·      Farmworker Advocacy Network

·      Documentary: Harvest of Dignity

·      Documentary: The Harvest (La Cosecha)