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The National Agricultural Workers Survey

Chapter 1: Demographics.


This chapter addresses agricultural workers' national origin, age, gender, and their right to work legally in the United States.

Summary of Findings

  • The proportion of foreign-born workers rose 10% from 1989 to 1995. Seven in ten agricultural workers were born outside the United States.
  • Farm workers were quite young; two-thirds were under the age of thirty-five.
  • The proportion of farm workers who were younger than 17 doubled from 4% in 1989 to 8%; most young workers were either white U.S. born or Mexicans and were found in specific regions of the country1.
  • The participation of women in farm work declined over the last several years from 25% to 19%. One in three U.S. born workers was a woman whereas only one in eight foreign-born workers was a woman.

Ethnicity/Place of Origin

A fundamental characteristic of farm workers and a good place to start discussion of this population is their racial and ethnic diversity. To simplify this discussion, the farm work population has been divided into three U.S. born and three foreign-born groups. The three U.S. born groups are: (1) farm workers who are white and not Hispanic; (2) farm workers who identify themselves as Hispanic; and (3) all other farm workers born in the United States. The three foreign-born groups are: (1) farm workers born in Mexico; (2) farm workers born in other Latin American countries; and (3) farm workers born in all other countries, including the Philippines, Southeast Asia, Haiti, and English-speaking Caribbean islands.

Farm workers were predominantly Hispanic; most were foreign-born (see Figure 1.1). Almost 7 out of 10 farm workers were foreign-born. Of the foreign-born workers, 94% were born in Mexico. Among the remaining 3 out of 10 farm workers born in the United States, approximately two-thirds were non-Hispanic whites, and one-third were of Hispanic background. A very small percentage (<3% of all farm workers) represented other ethnic groups including African American and Asian American farm workers.

Figure 1.1
Undisplayed Graphic
Source: NAWS 1994-95

U.S. born Hispanic workers, approximately 10% of all farm workers, included a variety of ethnic groups. A clear majority (66%) were of Mexican or other Latin ancestry, and Puerto Rican workers made up the remaining one-third of this population (see Table 1.1).

Several changes occurred in the ethnic composition of farm workers. Over the seven-year period of the survey, the population of foreign-born farm workers increased by 10 %; by 1994-95 they comprised 69% of all farm workers. This rise in foreign-born workers was due primarily to a dramatic increase in the proportion of Mexican farm workers, from 53% of all farm workers in FY 1990-91 to 65% in FY 1994-95. Over the same period of time, the ratio of farm workers who were born in the United States dropped to 31%, due to a decrease in the number of both U.S.-born white workers and U.S.-born Hispanic workers.

Table 1.1 Ethnicity of SAS Workers


Mexican 94% 65%
Other Latin 5% 3%
Asian <1% <1%
Other Caribbean <1% <1%
Other <1% <1%


Whites (non-Hispanic) 59% 18%
Hispanics 32% 10%
African-Americans (non-Hispanic) 8% 2%
Other 1% <1%
TOTAL U.S. BORN 100% 31%

TOTAL 100% 100%


In our analysis period (1994-1995), farm workers as a group were quite young. Two-thirds were younger than 35; over one-fourth were 21 or younger. A relatively small number of farm workers (15%) continued to work past the age of 44, and only 6% were over age 55 (see Figure 1.2).

Figure 1.2
Undisplayed Graphic
Source: NAWS 1994-95

The ethnic groups discussed earlier varied with regard to workers' median age (see Figure 1.3). U.S. born white workers were the youngest (median age=25). All the groups of Hispanic workers, including foreign-born Mexicans and other Latinos as well as U.S.-born Hispanics were relatively young. The median ages of these groups ranged from 28 to 30 years. Other U.S. born workers, primarily African and Asian Americans (median age=35) and foreign-born workers of Asian, Pacific Island and Caribbean origins (median age=41) tended to be older than other farm workers.

Figure 1.3
Undisplayed Graphic
Source: NAWS 1994-95

Although the median age of farm workers remained stable over the course of the survey, there was an increase in the proportion of farm workers who were very young. The proportion of workers 17 and younger doubled from 4 % of the entire farm worker population in FY 1990-91 to 8% in FY 1992-93. The increase of young workers in the population was due primarily to an influx of young U.S. born whites into the work force. In FY 1989, only 23% of young workers were white, whereas whites comprised 48% of the young workers in FY 1994-95. The proportion of young Mexican workers remained fairly stable over this time period; 36% of young workers were Mexican nationals. That almost half of farm workers in this age group were white was surprising given that, overall, U.S. born white workers represented only 18% of the farm worker population.

Nearly one-half of these young white U.S. born farm workers came from farm backgrounds; 52% said their parents worked on a farm at some point in time. Very young Mexican workers were even more likely to come from farm backgrounds; 61% said their parents had recently done farm labor in the United States.

Young, white farm workers tended to live in somewhat different geographical regions of the country than their Mexican counterparts. Two-thirds (67%) lived in the Midwest or Great Plains. Mexicans workers 17 and younger, by contrast, were most commonly found in the West, Midwest, and Southeast regions of the country (28%, 31%, and 21%, respectively).

Only one in six young U.S. born white farm workers worked in harvest jobs, compared to one-half of young Mexican workers. Additionally, fewer young white farm workers planned to continue doing farm work as a long-term career; only one in four (27%) said that they would stay in farm work for more than five years. A larger proportion of young Mexican farm workers (50%) intended to remain in farm work for more than five years.

Native white workers, particularly young white workers, continued to have a presence in the farm labor force. Trends revealed by these data demonstrate that, although U.S. born whites made up a smaller proportion of the farm labor population in FY 1994-95 than in FY 1990-91, young whites were still entering the labor force in certain regions of the country and in certain tasks.


There was an overall decline in the proportion of women in the farm labor force from the beginning of this study. In the late 1980s, one in four farm workers (25%) was a woman, while in the mid-1990s that ratio had dropped to one in five (19%).

Women farm workers differed somewhat from the overall farm worker population in terms of ethnic makeup; approximately one-half (52%) of all farm worker women were born in the United States as compared to one-quarter of the male farm workers (see Figure 1.4). Of these U.S. born women workers, two out of three were non-Hispanic white. Of the remaining farm worker women, those 48% who were born abroad, nine out of ten were Mexicans. Among all U.S.-born Hispanic workers, there was a striking contrast between Puerto Rican workers and others; only 4% of Puerto Rican workers were women, whereas 37% of non-Puerto Rican Hispanic workers born in the United States were women.

Figure 1.4
Undisplayed Graphic
Source: NAWS 1994-95

Proportionally, women comprised a larger part of the U.S. born farm worker population than they did among workers born abroad; every third U.S. born farm worker was a woman while only one in eight foreign-born farm workers was a woman.

There were also differences between U.S.-born workers and foreign-born workers when gender and age were considered together. Among U.S. born workers, women tended to be older than their male counterparts (32 and 25 years old, respectively) while among the foreign-born farm workers, there was no meaningful difference in age between men and women (29 and 30 years old, respectively).

Similar to farm workers as a whole group, one in five (18%) young (17 years or younger) farm workers was female, but this differed according to place of birth. One in six young U.S. born white workers was female compared to one in ten young Mexican workers. Examining young female workers as a group, three in four (74%) were born in the United States and one in four (26%) was born abroad.

1 The NAWS interviews farmworkers 14 years of age and older. This estimate includes only interviewees. An analysis of workers below 14 would demonstrate the proportion of child labor in agriculture. This information will be analyzed in a later report.