And there is also the perpetual problem of underemployment, says Johnson. Employers look at farm states with good jobs numbers, like Nebraska, with a 4.2 percent jobless rate, and decide to locate elsewhere, where there might be more available workers. In reality, says Johnson, the jobs situation in Nebraska is still bleak in many ways. "[Potential employers] don't realize that behind that is a lot of really skilled people that are underemployed to keep body and soul together," he says. "If you get laid off from Farmer Jones' operation, you're going to go to town and hire on doing something part time."
Still, America's farm industry enjoys a unique advantage that other goods-producing industries, like manufacturing, do not: It's hard for foreign competition to really hurt farm labor. "Some of the foreign competition stories with manufacturing may not be as relevant for agriculture. Cheap Chinese agriculture isn't to any important extent depressing farm employment in the U.S.," says Rothstein. That may be true, but it's surely cold comfort to America's ever-shrinking farm labor force.