Farm employment up in 2012
Despite increase, some areas still short on workers
By JOHN O'CONNELL
A recent USDA report suggests Pacific Northwest farms and ranches employed more workers who put in longer hours this fall than during the prior harvest season.
Despite the substantial labor increases, growers in some agricultural sectors, especially apple orchards, still came up short for workers.
Sources attribute the gains largely to record Idaho potato and Washington apple crops.
Washington and Oregon farms and ranches reported having 103,000 workers during an Oct. 7-13 reference week, up from 90,000 workers during the October 2011 reference week. During this October's reference week they worked 43.7 hours on average, up from 41.4 hours.
Worker wages rose significantly in Washington and Oregon -- up $1.54 per hour to $13.59 -- but dropped 28 cents to $10.17 per hour in the report's Mountain 1 region, which includes Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. In Idaho's region, 30,000 employees worked an average of 53.6 hours, up 1,000 workers and 2.9 hours from October 2011.
Nationally, farms and ranches employed 872,000 workers, up 44,000 workers from October 2011, and average time worked was down slightly at 41.5 hours. National farm and ranch wages rose 62 cents to $12.04 per hour.
In California, the farm and ranch labor force dropped by 23,000 to 162,000, but their work week averaged 46.5 hours, up 2.9 hours. California farm and ranch wages rose 77 cents to $11.73 per hour.
According to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, "California saw decreases in hired worker demand primarily from nurseries and fruit and nut operations."
Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, said demand for a limited pool of workers to pick a huge apple crop enabled laborers to re-negotiate wages or shop around for a better deal.
"They picked late on a lot of crops or had to let one variety go while another worth more money matured and required harvesting," Gempler said. "I know of several companies who were going to harvest through Thanksgiving."
Dan Fazio, Washington Farm Labor Association executive director, said higher wages due to strong demand for labor lured workers from other sectors of the economy, and employers brought in 1,000 to 2,000 more workers through the H-2A program. He worries the increased wages will push up the minimum wage for future H-2A workers.
"There was extreme competition among growers for workers," Fazio said. "We had increased wages drawing workers in."
Nationally, University of Idaho Extension economist Paul Patterson attributes additional hiring to an estimated 3.4 percent increase in planted acres of the principle U.S. crops.
Patterson believes Idaho's expanded workforce reflects a shift toward labor-intensive crops. He noted Idaho growers planted 7,000 additional acres of sugar beets and 25,000 more potato acres, with record spud yields.
Patterson said Idaho's agricultural labor pool isn't as tight as when workers were lured away by the building boom, but labor availability remains a "serious problem during periods of peak labor demand."
"Availability has been a bigger problem with tree fruit, vineyards and other specialty crops like hops that have very high seasonal demand," Patterson said.
Grower Mark Darrington, of Declo, Idaho, hired a few additional workers to stay on schedule in anticipation of strong potato yields. Though workers are available, he said properly trained labor is hard to find.
"I had some fields that yielded 50 sacks more than my five-year average. You've just got to put in more time to move them," Darrington said.