U.S. farmers are increasingly relying on foreign guestworkers to tend and harvest their crops as the number of domestic farmworkers continues to shrink.
In Washington state, farmers, orchardists and others who raise labor-intensive crops this year asked for 18,796 guestworkers — 43 percent more than last year and the most ever.
The growing number of H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers is evidence of what growers describe as an alarming shortage of workers to handle tree fruit, berries, vegetables, hops, wine grapes and any crops that require lots of workers.
“People not using H-2A think they can just raise wages and get more workers. In the past, that worked. It no longer does. There’s just not the workers out there,” said Dan Fazio, executive director of the Olympia-based farm labor association WAFLA. The association recruits the vast majority of H-2A workers hired in the state, mostly for tree fruit growers.
H-2A guestworkers increase growers’ costs. Workers often are paid piece rate but their minimum wage is higher than state minimum wages, and when a grower hires them he has to pay his domestic workers the same rate. Growers must advertise regionally before applying to bring guestworkers from foreign countries. Employers also must provide them with housing and round-trip transportation to their home countries.
In Washington, apples are a $2.4 billion annual crop. Other labor-intensive crops add billions of dollars more in economic activity. The Washington Employment Security Department says the number of seasonal farmworkers averages about 54,000 per month and hits more than 90,000 in peak months.
But an estimated 50 to 70 percent of non-H-2A farmworkers are in the U.S. illegally from Mexico and elsewhere, according to industry and government sources. Enforcement of immigration laws at the border and in the U.S., workers returning to Mexico and workers retiring or moving into other occupations are all cited by labor experts as causes of the labor shortage.
In the first three quarters of fiscal year 2017, Washington had 15,611 H-2A workers, ranking fourth behind Georgia, North Carolina and Florida, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
California, with 12,292 H-2A workers, ranked fifth, the only other Western state in the top 10.
Nationwide, the Labor Department has certified 160,084 H-2A guestworkers in the first three quarters of 2017 compared to 165,741 for all of 2016.
Kerry Scott is program manager of masLabor in Lovingston, Va., the largest provider of temporary H-2A guestworkers in the nation. The company also provides temporary H-2B non-agricultural workers.
Scott’s company has grown from 600 to 700 clients three years ago to 1,000 today and provided 18,000 workers nationwide this year. That’s up from 15,000 a year ago.
“We’re on track to exceed that next year. The pace of growth is accelerating,” Scott said.
In recent weeks, Scott has met with several large vegetable growers in Ohio, vintners in Virginia and tree fruit companies in Washington state, all of which plan to use H-2A workers next year, he said.
The company has supplied about 500 H-2A workers in Washington and will probably double that next year, he said.
Washington is hurting, he said, because it’s relied on migrant workers from California, and that supply is drying up.
The farmworker shortage is nationwide, statistics show. An estimated 730,800 seasonal and year-round farmworkers were employed nationwide in 2016, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. That’s down nearly 6 percent from 777,300 in 2013.
They were paid an average wage of $12.98 per hour, up from $12.54 per hour in 2015.
Last year, 157,500 were in California and received an average of $13.81 per hour; 68,800 were in Washington and Oregon and received an average of $13.90 per hour.
In the nation’s most productive farm state, Fresno County Farm Bureau President Ryan Jacobsen says the labor supply was tighter — and earlier — than usual this year, starting with the asparagus harvest in May and remaining that way all summer.
“Numerical information is very hard to come by, but from the pulse on the ground this is probably the tightest year in a decade,” Jacobsen said. “As the economy recovers and people move into other sectors and we don’t deal with immigration on a federal level, we continue to see tightening of that supply.”
Daniel Sumner, director of the Agricultural Issues Center at University of California-Davis, said he believes the labor shortage is getting worse every year. Harvest pressure is exacerbated by hot weather and by several commodities that are harvested at the same time in different regions, he said.
The shortage is driving up wages, but it’s still rare that crops go unpicked because of a lack of labor, Sumner said.
Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel of Western Growers in Irvine, which represents farmers who grow about half the produce in the U.S., agreed that labor is tight and getting tighter.
“Our members have been telling us anecdotally for a decade now that the lack of labor is pressing farmers, but over the last couple of years it has gotten much worse,” Resnick said.
Many workers are staying in Mexico as that nation’s economy has improved and more jobs become available, he said. Farmworkers in the U.S. are aging, and their children aren’t interested in farmwork, he said.
“The political environment and rhetoric combined with some of the enforcement actions taken by the federal government act as a deterrent as well,” he said.
While California increased its use of H-2A guestworkers by 15 percent in the first three quarters of 2017 over the same period last year, the program is not for everyone.
“It’s notoriously slow, bureaucratic, costly and unpredictable,” Resnick said.
Use of H-2A is still “a fraction of a fraction of a percent in terms of total farm labor,” Jacobsen said. “It’s not a great solution for California agriculture because it’s cumbersome and it’s very difficult to target in February your harvest need in August.”
Many growers will get by with planting less, fallowing land, planting crops that can be mechanically harvested and moving production to Mexico and other countries, Resnick said.
The Wenatchee River Valley, which stretches 22 miles upstream from Wenatchee to Leavenworth, is touted as the best micro-climate for growing pears in the world. D’Anjou is the top variety, but they are dense and heavy, causing many pickers to prefer picking apples, which weigh less.
In recent years, not all pears have been picked. Growers, particularly the last to harvest in higher elevations at the head of the valley, have increasingly found it hard to find pickers.
One of them, Dennis Nicholson, said he’s short pickers but is getting help from neighboring crews and the wives of regular workers. His son also took vacation time from his regular job to help and people with other jobs have been helping on weekends.
“H-2A doesn’t work for the small grower because we don’t have the housing nor the capital to pay the money they want,” he said.
“Labor is tight but I’m inclined to say it might be a little bit better than the last couple of years,” said Greg Rains, horticulturist and fieldman for Blue Star Growers, a Cashmere packer.
Blue Star has a sign along U.S. Highway 2/97 seeking workers for a night shift. The sign was up last year as well.
More growers share pickers, and there are no days off for domestic workers, Rains said.
A lighter crop and greater use of H-2A guestworkers has helped ease the shortage some this year, he said.
“In the last five years, we’ve gone from zero to maybe as high as 20 percent of our acreage in H-2A. That’s a guess,” Rains said.
Nonetheless, piece rate wages keep trending upward, he said.
Pablo Avila, orchard manager at Independent Warehouse in Dryden, last year paid $23 per bin plus a $1 a bin bonus if pear pickers stayed the whole season. This year, he said, the pay is $27 with a $2 a bin bonus to stay the season.
“We are one of the highest but there are others paying more,” he said, adding the average is about $25.
Avila said he has 35 pickers and needs 70 to harvest the 80 acres.
“That’s pretty much the same as last year and means it just takes a little longer to get it done,” he said.
Independent does not use H-2A workers but is thinking about it for next year, he said.
In Wenatchee, Stemilt AgServices, a subsidiary of Stemilt Growers that manages more than 8,000 orchard acres, used 750 H-2A workers a year ago. It has built housing for 1,200 beds for H-2A and domestic workers in the last three to four years and will build that much or more in the next three years, Bob Mathison, company board chairman, said.
His nephew and company president, West Mathison, said Stemilt AgServices has 1,000 H-2A workers and will hire a few more next year depending on the winter fruit bud analysis.
“We feel labor is tighter. It was reported the unemployment rate is the lowest since the inception of keeping county records. It feels that way to us. I believe the Central Washington economy is doing very well and we are just running out of people who want to work in all sectors,” West Mathison said.
Farther north around Lake Chelan, harvest labor is adequate but there’s no surplus, said Harold Schell, director of field services at Chelan Fruit Cooperative.
“Growers with H-2A have supply, but guys without it are sharing crews and just getting by,” Schell said.
They also are helped, he said, by the pear and Gala apple crops picking short of the volume and size estimate.
“We’re at peak,” he said. “It used to be with more Red Delicious that (labor) peak was early October but now with Honeycrisp and Gala, peak is Labor Day to mid to late September.”
The co-op was short 400 packers three weeks before start of cherry harvest in June, but met the need by advertising in other states and paying higher wages, said Reggie Collins, general manager.
In mid-September, the co-op had enough packers but was a month away from full operations. It was paying $12 per hour, $1 more than it paid last year.
“We were 80 to 100 people short at this time last year, so I’m feeling better about it now,” Collins said.
In Othello, Paula McKay, manager and principal owner of Mar-Jon Labor, the region’s largest farm labor contractor, said it’s been “a lot harder” to find the 2,100 workers she’s needed this year.
“Reliability of workers is not the same anymore. Since there’s a shortage, workers take advantage of it and move back and forth between employers depending on who is paying more,” McKay said.
She paid the state minimum wage of $11 per hour for weeding but other contractors paid $11.50 to $12 and at times she lost a third or more of her crew to them, she said. Onion topping was her biggest shortage, she said.
“We did get the job done for our growers but at a slower pace,” she said.
Growers who normally have 80 domestic pickers had no more than 15 this year, McKay said.
Oregon and Idaho
In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Doug Krahmer, a St. Paul blueberry grower and former state Board of Agriculture member, said there’s no excess but that he had enough workers this season and believes other berry and hop growers did as well.
“I think it’s about the same as last year but it seems better only because I expected worse,” he said.
He’s appreciative that as many migrants showed up from California as did, he said.
A grower since 1980, Krahmer has about 500 acres of blueberries, pays average piece rate, doesn’t use H-2A and remains concerned about the future.
In Caldwell, Idaho, Mike Williamson said he had 15 to 20 workers to harvest his white peaches, which was enough because the crop was lighter than anticipated.
Other tree fruit and wine grape growers “are able to make it because of lighter crops from spring frosts, but guys are pulling from H-2A (visa foreign guestworkers) and from jail work release and prisons so there’s really not an oversupply,” Williamson said.
A new state law three years ago makes it easier for growers to employ prison inmates.
For years, representatives of labor-intensive agriculture have lobbied Congress to help provide a legal and more stable workforce through immigration reform.
In short, growers want legal work authorization for illegal immigrants who make up 50 to 70 percent of their workforce. They also want a more responsive and less costly foreign guestworker program.
But political divisions in Congress over that and broader aspects of immigration reform leave growers wondering if it will ever get done.
“I’ve played the D.C. game where you go back and talk to all the politicians and my head got bloodied and sore against that brick wall and I’m not going to do it anymore,” Krahmer said.
“Someday, we won’t get our crops harvested and you would think consumers will pressure Congress to do something because growers haven’t been able to get it done,” he said.
“It’s like a teeter-totter. Up one day and down the next. We’re all hopeful our country will figure this out and want agriculture to be profitable to feed those we need to feed,” Collins said.
Western Growers’ Resnick said it’s hard to rate the chances of immigration reform in Congress.
“We have spoken to many members in Congress who recognize the need to pass immigration reform measures that will address the current and future labor needs of farmers,” he said.
Previous efforts have failed. Western Growers’ president, Tom Nassif, was instrumental in negotiating the agricultural segment of the 2013 Senate immigration bill with the United Farm Workers union. It failed in the House.
Kerry Scott, of masLabor, said he’s not optimistic about the chances of immigration reform.
“We have been waiting, essentially since 1986, for Congress to do something comprehensive,” Scott said. “If anything, it’s getting harder and harder for Congress to tackle big problems.
“There’s talk about Congress and everyone coming together to help the hurricane victims of Houston and now Florida. That it might be a step in the right direction. And now (President) Trump working with Democrats, but I don’t know how long it will last.”