Monday, November 2, 2015

In Search of an Agricultural Employment Count

What do we know about the agricultural workforce in Central Utah? 

By Lecia Parks Langston, Senior Economist

“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.” 
Dwight D. Eisenhower
With all our talk of “nonfarm” jobs, you may think the Department of Workforce Services’ economists are agricultural employment bigots, always ignoring this important part of the economy. Au contraire. Trust me, we would love to share frequent agricultural employment updates if only they were available. This is particularly true since we understand the important role of agriculture in Central Utah. However, the laws that provide the administrative data we use to track nonfarm employment (through the state’s unemployment insurance system) cover only a small portion of the agricultural work occurring in Utah.

There are three primary sources of agricultural employment data; the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW, our usual “jobs” data), the American Community Survey (ACS) and the Census of Agriculture. As you can see from the data visualization, each yields a vastly different count of farming workers due to differences in coverage and methodology. The chart that follows this post outlines the differences. Here are some of the major variances:

• The Census of Agriculture is just that — a census. The ACS is a survey. The QCEW data is obtained from data collected as a byproduct of the administration of the unemployment insurance (UI) system, yet there are many small farming activities not subject to the UI laws.

• QCEW and the agricultural census count jobs as opposed to the ACS, which counts people in their primary industry. (One person can have several jobs.)

• QCEW omits self-employed and firms with few/intermittent employees. It is the least inclusive of the agricultural employment counts.

• The agricultural census seeks to include all those who work in agriculture, whether for a whole year or a day. It is the most inclusive of the agricultural employment counts.

What count should you use? 

As with most data, usage should be determined by purpose. As indicated, some sources are more inclusive that others. In several Central Utah counties, agriculture can be big business and tracking QCEW agricultural employment adds to our understanding of the current economy. This agricultural employment, by definition, is not included in the “nonfarm” employment total that is typically the best economic indicator at the county level.

Counts from the ACS provide a sense of the workforce that has a principal attachment to farming and agriculture. On the other hand, the agricultural census attempts to capture almost everyone who works in agriculture (sometimes more than once, as it counts jobs, not people).

Comparing the numbers 

In the five counties that comprise Central Utah, counts of agricultural employment range from just roughly 900 for covered QCEW jobs to nearly 6,800 from the agricultural census. The ACS, which provides the best count of primary agricultural workers, chimes in with more than 2,000 workers. Not included in the agricultural census totals are substantial numbers of unpaid (usually family) workers. Large farms and agricultural establishments play an important role in the economies of both Millard and Sanpete counties as evidenced by the smaller variance in the QCEW and ACS counts. Both these counties also display the largest agricultural census job counts in the Central Region.

Millard County maintains the second largest number of QCEW-covered agricultural workers in the state and also shows the second-largest percentage (12 percent) of agricultural workers as a percentage of total QCEW employment. ACS data also shows the importance of farming to this county’s economy. More than 14 percent of the civilian labor force has a primary job in agriculture, the third highest percentage in Utah.

In Sanpete County, agricultural employment accounts for a smaller (3.4 percent), but still important share of total QCEW-covered jobs. On the other hand, the QCEW average monthly wage for agriculture measured 119 percent of the average wage for all workers in 2014.

In Sevier, Piute and Wayne counties, the small number of covered QCEW workers compared to ACS employment suggests that most farms are small, family-owned properties. Sevier and Wayne counties, which have unsuppressed data available, show roughly 1 percent of covered QCEW employment in agriculture. However, the ACS captures a high number and share of agricultural workers. In Wayne County nearly 8 percent of the labor force has a primary attachment to agriculture. Sevier and Piute counties (6 and 7 percent respectively) exhibit a similar prominence.

Delving into the labor data in the agricultural census 

The agricultural census provides a wealth of information about agricultural labor not available from the other two sources. A few interesting facts follow. To explore more data, use the tabs on the visualization.

• In Piute, Sevier and Wayne counties, unpaid workers outnumbered hired workers.

• In Central Utah, Millard and Sanpete counties show almost equal numbers of operators plus hired workers. However, Millard County exhibits much higher labor expenses.

• Only Wayne County showed a decrease in operators between 2007 and 2012.

• Workers in all Central Utah counties were most likely to work less than 150 days per year.

• In Millard and Wayne counties, roughly half of operators’ primary occupation was in farming. In Sevier and Sanpete counties, farm operators were more likely to have a non-farming occupation. Only in Piute County were operators more likely to indicate their primary occupation was farming than not.

• Between 2002 and 2012, the average age of farm operators has steadily increased.

Click to Enlarge