It’s three weeks before the start of harvest and the Chelan Fruit Cooperative is short hundreds of workers needed to pack this year’s cherry crop. General Manager Reggie Collins worries about whether some of the crop will have to go unpicked in June and July.
“Last year, we were scared to death and we were able to get barely enough for our packing lines with high school kids. This year it looks shorter,” Collins said from the co-op’s offices in Chelan, Wash.
“Three weeks before cherry season last year, we had 241 new applications beyond our regular staff. This year we have 40,” he said. “We’re probably 400 short right now and we will start packing on the 10th or 12th of June.”
Some 840 miles to the south, Scott Brown, production manager of Morada Produce in Linden, Calif., says the largest cherry crop in years has labor stretched so thin that companies are making tough choices, based on quality and volume, of which orchards to pick and which to pass over.
In Idaho, grower Duane Grant, of Rupert, used to get two applications for every seasonal job opening on his large diversified farm. Now he gets so few applications he’s joined a growing number of farmers who turn to foreign guestworkers.
In Oregon, the demand for farmworkers is outpacing the workforce, Kevin Chambers, owner of Koosah Farm in Amity, Ore., told a recent immigration summit.
“What we have is a relatively fixed pool of laborers, and a growing need,” he said. “We’re planting more acres of grapes, hazelnuts — there is greater demand for labor.”
Across the Pacific Northwest and California, finding enough labor for tree fruit, berries, hops — any labor-intensive crop — is heavy on the minds of growers, packers, shippers and marketers. It’s magnified, several said, because fewer people are apparently illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border to do farm work and by media hype of the Trump administration’s deportation of illegal immigrants, which heightens fear among some workers.
Rose Richeson, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman in Seattle, said the biggest difference in the ICE arrest policy under the Trump administration is that no category of individuals in violation of immigration laws is excluded from possible enforcement action. In the past, some were not a priority, she said.
Illegal immigrants who are convicted criminals or a security risk are the priority targets for arrest, and the number of them arrested has risen substantially, she said. Non-criminal illegal immigrants, while not a target, may also be arrested, though in the past that was less likely, Richeson said.
She said the rumors surrounding ICE’s activities are inaccurate.
“Reports of ICE checkpoints and sweeps are false, dangerous and irresponsible,” she said. “Any groups falsely reporting such activities are doing a disservice to those they claim to support.”
Another big factor in the labor shortage is the red-hot economy in places such as Idaho. Though the labor pool there continues to grow, new and expanding processing and manufacturing plants are tapping the labor pool and pushing the state unemployment rate to 3.3 percent, a level economists label full employment.
Oregon also has a tight labor market, with a 3.7 percent preliminary unemployment rate for April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. California has a 4.8 percent unemployment rate and Washington state’s is 4.6 percent.
No. 1 issue
“The No. 1 issue in the industry right now is labor. It really is. I would say there’s a general feeling of greater intensity and concern on labor than in a number of years,” says Chuck Zeutenhorst, general manager of First Fruits Marketing of Washington, in Yakima.
“There has been so much negative press and misinformation and fake news about (President Donald Trump’s) real policies, and unfortunately that drives fear into people,” Zeutenhorst said.
There’s a lot of angst about Trump rounding up illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes but former President Barack Obama deported 2 million illegal immigrants, he said.
“We hope the Trump administration comes up with a thoughtful immigration policy that works,” Zeutenhorst said. “We haven’t had a positive one for the past eight years.”
First Fruits markets for Broetje Orchards and two other producers. Broetje operates more than 5,000 acres in the Tri-Cities area of southeastern Washington. It’s one of the largest companies that relies solely on domestic labor without using the H-2A visa foreign guestworker program.
Many large Washington tree fruit companies do rely on H-2A workers, estimated to reach 15,000 this year. The program is expensive, requiring employers to pay at least $13.38 per hour, and provide housing and transportation between the farm and the worker’s country of origin, usually Mexico.
Broetje employs about 2,200 workers for picking and packing cherries and about 4,000 for the apple harvest. It’s too early to know whether the company will have enough this year, Zeutenhorst said.
Broetje pays well and takes care of its workers but some day may have to turn to H-2A, he said.
August and September will be stressful, he said, because the harvests of apples, grapes and hops will all compete for the same workers.
Stemilt Growers of Wenatchee, Wash., one of the largest cherry packers with operations in Wenatchee and California, last season needed 1,500 workers for two Wenatchee cherry packing plants for double shifts at season peak.
This year, the harvest will likely be spread over more days so fewer people will be needed, said West Mathison, Stemilt president.
Mathison said he was concerned a month ago, but now has recruited 80 percent of the people he needs and has three weeks to recruit the rest.
“With our good employee facilities, our free health care clinic and long season we feel we will be able to recruit enough good people. With near record low unemployment, we know it will be tight,” Mathison said.
Several Washington growers who rely on domestic workers said they won’t know the severity of any labor shortage in cherries until the latter half of June.
Several others said there is a labor shortage but that they have enough domestic workers because they pay well or provide housing, or both, and generally treat their workers well.
Brenda Thomas is president of Orchard View Farms, The Dalles, Ore. With about 2,400 acres, Orchard View is the largest cherry grower in Oregon. The company is doing OK so far, recruiting online with many workers planning to return after making good money there last season, she said.
“We don’t want anything happening between now and harvest with any fake news,” Thomas said, adding that it creates fear.
There’s a different feel, a fear of the unknown by employee and employer, she said, from perceptions about deportation when “they won’t look at your immigration (status) unless they pull you over for another crime.”
There is a shortage, she said, because there are no extra people anymore looking for work.
Orchard View Farms does well without H-2A, she said, because it provides housing for workers, pays well on piece rates averaging $20 per hour, has a good work environment and a long season.
“We want to be the preferred choice for work,” Thomas said. The company peaks at about 1,100 workers for picking and packing, she said.
“Over 80 percent of our workers come from communities in California where their kids go to school. They come up and work and count on our cherry harvest to fill their gap in California harvests,” she said.
Keith Middleton, of Middleton Six Sons Farms, Pasco, Wash., said he has 130 workers, all he needs, at midway through asparagus harvest with a month to go.
“We’re just a mile out of Pasco, have some of the newest varieties, clean fields and are one of the top-paying farms around,” he said. He pays pickers 25 to 30 cents per pound.
A couple of months ago there was a lot of concern about ICE but that’s died down, Middleton said.
Wade Wolfe, winemaker at Thurston Wolfe Winery, Prosser, Wash., said even smaller vineyards are turning to mechanized harvesting to reduce their labor needs. Grape harvest overlaps apple harvest and workers go for apples because it pays more, he said. The apple competition gets more challenging each year, he said, adding that the labor shortage is about the same or slightly worse this year.
Tye Fleming, owner of Helios Nursery in Quincy, Wash., said he ran 20 workers short all last year and has enough right now, but that there’s a definite overall shortage, with workers jumping around to whoever pays the most. Tree fruit nursery work is tougher, with lots of bending over and no shade, so orchard work wins out, he said.
He sees no change in the trend of a shrinking labor pool so his goal is to reduce his payroll by 40 percent in five years with more mechanization.
“H-2A labor would cost me $16 per hour by the time I house and transport them and the sales price of our product doesn’t support that cost,” he said.
John Baile, assistant orchard manager of Auvil Fruit Co. in Orondo, Wash., said the company needs 400 workers in its cherry and apple orchards on 2,220 acres. He’s able to get them domestically by paying good wages, he said, but may have to consider joining the other growers who use H-2A as the domestic labor force remains static.
As in many states, some growers in Idaho have turned to H-2A workers to fill jobs.
Grant, the Rupert, Idaho, grower, has to cover his shortage of workers with H-2A guestworkers. The most current U.S. Department of Labor data, for Fiscal Year 2014, shows Idaho had 2,080 certified H-2A workers, representing 1.78 percent of the total U.S. pool.
He has been getting H-2A workers from Mexico, but he believes fewer Mexican workers are interested in working in the U.S. due to that country’s improving economy, smaller family sizes and new opportunities in other sectors.
Grant acknowledges there’s a risk some of his full-time employees may seek to upgrade to better jobs that are becoming available, and he’s steadily increased wages to remain competitive.
“Our wages as a line-item expense have grown much faster than the value of the products we sell,” Grant said. “Wages have been the most consistently growing line-item in our budget.”
No H-2A option
H-2A isn’t an option for dairy operators, said Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association. The visa is limited to temporary guestworkers but dairies require full-time, year-round employees.
“We have no way to bring in new employees,” Naerebout said.
Naerebout said the tight labor supply hasn’t prevented many Idaho dairies from expanding, though it’s a factor they must consider in their planning, and many operations are becoming highly automated to get by with smaller workforces.
He believes talk from the Trump administration about cracking down on illegal immigrants has raised fears among workers, but ultimately hasn’t shrunk the labor pool. He also points out that tight labor has been a problem for agriculture for the past decade, regardless of the unemployment rate at any given time.
“I don’t see that there’s been any change (with the labor picture),” Naerebout said. “It’s a direct result of Congress’ inability to address the immigration debate and put together comprehensive immigration reform.”
Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, told the recent immigration summit the agricultural labor shortage is a cap on growth for nurseries, with some operating with only 40 to 50 percent of the employees they need. As a result, some who could grow their business 25 percent are growing at a rate of only 2 or 3 percent because they don’t have sufficient labor, Stone said.
While California has yet to enter its peak season for labor, growers already report as much as a 20 to 30 percent shortage of workers. In the central San Joaquin Valley, that number is closer to 40 percent.
“I’m telling folks it’s looking like the tightest it’s been in five or 10 years, at least in this area,” said Ryan Jacobsen, president of the Farm Bureau in Fresno County, which grows more than $6.6 billion in crops, livestock and poultry each year. “We’re hearing early indications that some folks … are only seeing 60 percent of what they would consider to be an adequate labor force.”
Reporters Tim Hearden, John O’Connell and Eric Mortenson contributed to this story.