The best quality jobs data (QCEW) was released earliest this month through the end of 2021, and gives the first reliable data on the state of agricultural employment during 2021, a year impacted by drought and lingering impacts of Covid. The graphs below show employment and wages data over time for all of California in NAICS 11 (Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting). Agriculture accounts for 99% of jobs in this industry category in California.
As you can see on the graph, jobs had steadied near 423,000 in the years prior to Covid, and then declined by about 15,000 during the first year of the pandemic. In 2021, Covid impacts on the farm labor were lower, but drought impacts likely prevented recovery.
While I say this is the first reliable data, UC-Merced (in partnership with others) released a projection in February 2022 that the drought eliminated 8,744 jobs in California agriculture compared to what they would expect in non-drought conditions. Their estimates suggest 2021 employment would have been just under 420,000 in the absence of drought. That seems pretty accurate to me and I am happy to see that this modeling of drought impacts seems to be much better than what UC was producing a decade or so ago.
Overall, this is just over a 2% decline in employment relative to non-drought conditions. While drought employment declines grab the headlines, the more impactful story in the ag jobs data is the continued strong growth in wages. Average wages in the agriculture industry in California increased again in 2021, and have risen about 60% over the past decade (not adjusted for inflation) after years of stagnation. While it is still the lowest-paying sector in California, this wage growth is significant and has benefited thousands.
What will 2022 bring? The drought continues, and the impacts of the pandemic and less abundant and more expensive labor are also continuing to some degree. Thus, a recovery is unlikely this year.