What is Considered Farm Work?

Note that this page is designed to help farmers ensure that they are adhering to applicable laws, but it is not a legal document and is not exhaustive.

Farm work is treated differently than other work in federal and state wage and hour laws. Those performing farm work – as strictly defined in federal and state law – are exempt from overtime, and in Massachusetts those doing this work are also subject to a lower agricultural minimum wage. Many farm employers take advantage of one or more of these exemptions – but there’s a catch: it’s often hard to tease apart what is and what isn’t included in the definition of farm work.

Both federal and state laws define farm work in a manner that leaves room for interpretation by different enforcement officials and courts. If farm employers choose not to pay their employees overtime or minimum wage, they must assume responsibility for ensuring that these employees are only doing work that is legally considered to be farm work. Employers assume legal risk when these employees perform job duties that are in legal gray areas with regard to their categorization as farm work.

The federal definition of farm work

For purposes of its overtime exemption provision, the federal Department of Labor defines farm work as including “those employed solely in agriculture,” such as field workers, tractor operators, loaders and drivers, and farm office personnel. A worker must be paid overtime during any week(s) in which s/he performs non-exempt work. Examples of types of work often performed on farms that generally are NOT exempt from overtime under federal law include:

  • Working in agritourism (e.g. on-farm festivals, hay rides, corn mazes)
  • Handling produce grown off-farm (e.g. stocking raspberries grown by a neighbor)
  • Processing farm products, especially when off-farm ingredients are added or composition is altered.
  • Tending bought-in nursery plants
  • Installing farm-grown landscaping plants for customers

The Massachusetts definition of farm work

For purposes of its minimum wage and overtime exemption provisions, Massachusetts defines farm work as “labor on a farm and the growing and harvesting of agricultural, floricultural, and horticultural commodities.” A recent court decision has indicated that this language is to be interpreted significantly more strictly than the language in the federal overtime exemption. While federal law exempts “secondary agricultural” activities that are “incidental” to farming (such as many post-harvest tasks) from overtime, such activities are not exempt from overtime or minimum wage under Massachusetts law.

Farm tasks that are exempt from overtime and minimum wage include plowing, tilling, fertilizing, irrigating, sowing, planting, germinating, growing, picking, and harvesting on crop farms, and grazing, feeding, milking, inseminating, breeding, hatching, clipping, and shoeing on livestock farms.

Examples of types of tasks that are subject to overtime and minimum wage under Massachusetts law include:

  • Retail work
  • Office work
  • Work performed off of the farm premises
  • Post-harvest work including:
    • Cleaning, inspecting, sorting, and weighing produce
    • Packing produce in bags or boxes
    • General cleaning work like sweeping

The information in this tipsheet was last updated May 2024. This material is based upon work supported by USDA/NIFA under Award Number 2012-49200-20031. Funding was also provided by individual contributors and Local Hero members.t

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