In 2012, Washington farmers could not fully harvest their asparagus crops because there simply were not enough workers available. This highlights a larger trend in the state: Between 2002 and 2014, real wages of Washington field and crop workers jumped 18.6 percent, signaling a possible labor shortage. Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission and a fifth-generation farmer, says that scenario could easily repeat itself, as lack of labor is a serious and constant issue for Washington farmers. “We are not going to have asparagus—or a lot of fruit and vegetables in this country—if we can’t get [immigration policy] fixed,” Schreiber says. Labor shortages pose a critical challenge to Washington, where the agriculture industry contributes more than $7.5 billion to the state’s GDP, placing it among the top 10 states in terms of size of contribution.
On his 112-acre farm, Schreiber grows asparagus, kale, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, melon, and watermelon. All of these must be harvested by hand, requiring workers to be shuffling along, hunched over, for up to 10 hours a day. Schreiber has tried to hire local American workers for these seasonal jobs. On one occasion, he has sought the services of a labor contractor. “The first crew came at 6 a.m. and quit at 2 p.m.,” he recalls. “The second crew they brought in refused to work the second day.”
We are not going to have asparagus—or a lot of fruit and vegetables in this country—if we can’t get [immigration policy] fixed.
Even if he had been able to keep those workers, he found their skills inadequate. “The quality of the workforce is not very good,” he laments. Schreiber says the obvious solution would be a guest worker program that allows foreign-born workers the option to come to the United States to work seasonally and then return home. He says it needs to be more streamlined and less bureaucratic than the current program, known as H-2A. “It is so stringent,” he says. Farmers like Schreiber are forced to navigate the red tape around this system, which still leaves them short of an adequate workforce. In addition to a revamped guest worker program, Schreiber supports reforms that would allow long-term foreign residents to become naturalized.
The way the system works now, Schreiber says, doesn’t make sense. One of his employees left the farm to visit family in Mexico, which proved disastrous: He was apprehended by border patrol while making his way back into the United States. “I did not know he was undocumented,” Schreiber says. “All in all, the man ended up in a federal penitentiary for seven and a half months.” He was attempting to reenter the States so he could return to a job that was being held for him, Schreiber says. It’s a position that requires 12-hour days at $12 an hour—work that native-born workers don’t want to do. To Schreiber, this scenario is nonsensical. “That is the kind of guy we need [working] in this country,” he says. “Not in jail.”