Labor shortage looms: Record crops coming and Mid-Columbia farmers not ready

Columbia Basin and Yakima Valley farmers are looking for skilled workers to hand pick apples, harvest wine grapes, sort newly harvested onions and weed rows of blueberry bushes.

They need them now, but finding enough workers is tough because of localized shortages of seasonal, skilled farmworkers and a tight labor supply statewide.

While the difficulties in finding skilled temporary workers is nothing new, it’s been accentuated this year because warm weather has hastened the ripening of some crops, overlapping peak worker needs for hops, apples, wine grapes and other crops. Record harvests also are expected.

“Everybody I know is short,” said Dick Boushey, a Grandview wine grape grower.

He’s had three fellow farmers ask him if his crew could help with their harvests, but he doesn’t have the people to spare.

The state Employment Security Department stopped surveying farmers monthly on farm employment earlier this year because of budget cuts. Without those surveys, it’s difficult to track farm labor shortages.

Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties had fewer workers in April this year, despite one of the state’s largest cherry crops and record-breaking apple and wine grape crops. There were about 13,300 farm jobs, down by more than 3 percent compared with April 2013, according to the most recent data available.

Statewide, the number of seasonal workers was down by about 4,500 workers, more than 14 percent fewer than the same month last year.

The work force is getting older and some have retired or changed jobs, said Ignacio Marquez, the state Department of Agriculture’s community liaison. Washington does not get as many migrant workers from out of the state as it did in the past and even the workers who live in the state are settling down and not traveling much out of their own region.

The seasonal jobs are skilled. And orchardists don’t have the time to train someone how to correctly pick a specific variety of apples in the middle of harvest, Marquez said. Picking fruit wrong could damage the apple and the orchard.

Ron Reimann of T & R Farms in Franklin County said his farm has struggled to find workers for the first part of apple harvest this year. Workers finished harvesting his crop more than a week ago, which was about two weeks early.

The federal H-2A guest worker program has helped bring more foreign workers to Washington orchards and vineyards this year. But Abraham Larios, Atkinson Staffing’s general operations manager, said even that hasn’t been enough.

The agency, which supplies workers, is set to have a record year this year because of the demand and shortage for skilled labor. Larios said they are getting twice as many calls and are also hearing from packing houses and processors that are struggling to find workers.

Also this year, Atkinson Staffing used the federal guest worker program for some of its own crews. Larios said they would have requested more foreign workers, but they couldn’t find any more housing, which is a program requirement.

That’s a major restriction, prompting most farmers to petition for the number of beds they can secure, rather than the full number of workers they really need, said Roxana Macias, Washington Farm Labor Association H-2A program manager.

About 8,500 H-2A workers were expected at the peak of harvest this year. Macias said the association, which acts as a human resources services manager, increased the number of guest workers it is bringing into the state this year for farmers by 45 percent.

She’s getting calls from farmers asking for foreign workers now. But the visas issued through the program specify who each worker can work for and other employers can’t be added.

Immigration reform that includes a less bureaucratic and less costly guest worker program is critical to address short and long-term labor needs, said Scott Dilley, Washington Farm Bureau associate director of government relations. That’s something that is up to Congress.

“We need a system that is going to enable farmers to have access to workers, both domestic workers and foreign workers, for the next several decades,” he said.

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