BOZEMAN — A Montana State University economist recently published two articles in respected economic journals examining influencing factors and impacts of seasonal agricultural labor.

Diane Charlton, assistant professor of agricultural economics and economics. - MSU Photo by Kelly Gorham

Diane Charlton, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics in MSU’s College of Agriculture, researches agricultural production, labor migration and development economics. Her paper, written with MSU coauthor Brock Smith and Alexander James of the University of Alaska, “Seasonal Agricultural Activity and Crime” appeared in the American Journal of Economics. Another paper, “Seasonal Farm Labor and COVID-19 Spread,” was published in Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy. Both were published in early September.

The first paper combines data on local criminal activity and seasonal demand for farm labor in counties across the nation that have high rates of agricultural production from 1990 to 2016. Charlton and Smith decided to collaborate on the topic after they saw newspaper articles suggesting many U.S. residents assume that migratory agricultural workers increase local crime rates.

Brock Smith, assistant professor of economics in the College of Agriculture at Montana State University. - MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

“To our knowledge we are the first to examine how seasonal labor-intensive agricultural activity impacts local crime rates,” they wrote. “An estimated 38% of seasonal fruit, vegetable and horticultural workers were classified as migratory from 1990 to 2016, and approximately 48% were unauthorized immigrants over the same span.”

After analyzing 27 years’ worth of data, Charlton and Smith concluded that the increase in agricultural labor force reduces property and violent crime rates, and possibly the number of property crimes. The paper attributes these findings to the fact that harvests enhance opportunities in the local labor market, thereby reducing the incentive to commit crimes. It also notes that previous research generally has found that foreign-born immigrants are no more likely than natural-born citizens to commit crimes.

“While economic shocks that attract new workers to the region are sometimes associated with increased crime rates, positive economic shocks can also deter crime by providing alternative economic opportunities,” said Charlton. “The effects of seasonal agricultural labor booms on local crime rates is not obvious.”

In the second paper, Charlton examined the relationship between influxes of migratory agricultural workers and COVID-19 in agricultural counties by looking at month-to-month variations in agricultural employment and confirmed cases.

The analysis found that counties where 100 additional workers in fruit, vegetable and horticultural production were employed had 4.5% more COVID-19 cases, or around 19 additional positive cases per 100,000 residents. Migration might help explain the association between farm employment and COVID-19 incidence, and Charlton notes several potential contributing factors.

Those factors include the fact that many migratory farm workers live below the poverty line, reside in densely populated quarters and often lack access to health care or health insurance. Many farm workers report working even while ill, perhaps because they fear losing hours of pay or because they simply feel well enough to keep working, posit the authors. Surveys suggest that there is a higher hesitancy to seek public services or potentially to get vaccinated since many are undocumented immigrants.

Farm work itself does not necessarily increase the spread of COVID-19, Charlton said. The paper notes that there is no statistically significant association with COVID-19 incidence when it comes to crops that are harvested mechanically, such as grains and oilseed, or in livestock agriculture. Fruit and vegetable crops, which are mostly harvested by hand, showed greatest positive association with COVID-19 incidence.

“Understanding which commodities or agricultural activities are most highly associated with COVID-19 spread can help producers and managers throughout the food supply chain prepare for and mitigate losses and future risk,” Charlton wrote. “The findings from this paper can help inform which agricultural industries were most exposed to coronavirus-related risks in worker health and labor supply in 2020 and determine priority strategies for managing potential disruptions to farm labor supply in the future.”

- By Reagan Colyer, MSU News Service -