Urban Development and Farm Labor Scarcity: Are Workers Leaving Agriculture for Construction?

The United States has faced a shortage of farmworkers for several decades. In areas of the country that grow labor intensive crops, the lack of a reliable supply of agricultural workers is one of the main concerns among farmers. The reduction in the availability of workers in the fields is attributed to multiple factors, including a reduction in the number of undocumented immigrants engaging in agricultural work, increased border enforcement, and the reticence of native-born individuals to take physically demanding jobs even in periods of high unemployment (Gutierrez-Li, 2022). 

While the decline in the number of farmworkers may be explained in part by fewer people interested in taking agricultural jobs, the exodus to other sectors is also increasing over time. One of the main industries to which agricultural workers are moving is the field of construction. This sector requires a similar skillset to agricultural work, which facilitates workers’ mobility out of the farm sector (Barham et al., 2020). One incentive that motivates farmworkers to leave farm work to find jobs in construction is relatively higher wages. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean hourly wage of a construction worker in 2021 was $21.22, compared to $14.27 in the agricultural sector. 

In addition to offering better wages, the construction sector has been luring farmworkers as metropolitan areas in the nation are experiencing rapid growth, thereby requiring additional labor to complete real estate developments. As seen in Figure 1, some of the fastest growing cities are in the Southeast. These include areas–Charlotte/Raleigh-Durham in North Carolina, Nashville in Tennessee, Atlanta in Georgia, Jacksonville/ Miami in Florida, and multiple cities (Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth) in Texas—have also experienced a sizable increase in population. The rise in urbanization in southern states has been driven by their relatively larger percentages of gross domestic product (GDP) growth as shown in Figure 2. If urban development continues to accelerate in states where the agricultural industry is heavily dependent on a human workforce, it is expected that farm labor shortages there may continue to worsen, and the demand for H-2A foreign agricultural workers will continue to rise. 

Figure 1. Population size and growth rates in the 50 largest U.S. cities

Source: Brookings Institution using information from the 2010 and 2020 decennial censuses.   

Figure 2. Growth in Gross Domestic Product in 2022

Source: Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. The University of North Carolina.


Barham, B. L., Melo, A. P., & Hertz, T. (2020). Earnings, wages, and poverty outcomes of US farm and low‐skill workers. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, 42(2), 307-334.

Frey, W. (2021). 2020 Census: big cities grew and became more diverse, especially among their youth. Report. Brookings Institution. Washington D.C.

Gutierrez-Li, A. (2021). The H-2A visa program: addressing farm labor scarcity in North Carolina. NC State Economist. North Carolina State University.

The American Growth Project. (2022). 2022’s Fastest-growing U.S. cities, ranked. October report. Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Author: Alejandro Gutierrez-Li

Assistant Professor and Extension Economist


Gutierrez-Li, Alejandro. “Urban Development and Farm Labor Scarcity: Are Workers Leaving Agriculture for Construction?Southern Ag Today 2(50.5). December 9, 2022. Permalink