By DAN WHEAT
YAKIMA, Wash. -- Washington state's total agricultural employment increased 8.7 percent in May compared with the same month in 2012 and seasonal ag employment was up 3.5 percent, according to a state report.
The increases were probably driven by this year's growing season being a week to 10 days ahead of last year's, said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, an ag employer advocacy organization in Yakima.
Overall strength of the agricultural economy and acreage increasing in tree fruit and other commodities may also be a factor, Gempler said.
Seasonal agricultural employment increased 39 percent over the two-year period from May 2011 through May 2013, the report states. A large part of that likely was for a record apple crop last fall, sources said.
The Agriculture Labor Employment and Wages report, issued June 17 by the state Department of Employment Security, showed seasonal agricultural employment, May-to-May, up 1,790 in apple work and 370 in cherries. There were 320 more workers in hops, 200 in other, 190 in grapes, 50 in raspberries, 40 in bulbs and 10 in pears.
But there were 1,580 fewer workers in asparagus, 780 fewer in onions, 500 fewer in miscellaneous vegetables, down 180 in nurseries, 170 fewer in wheat and grain and 90 fewer in blueberries.
Geographically, South Central was up 18.5 percent due to a jump of 2,310 apple workers. North Central decreased 4.6 percent due to 700 fewer apple workers and the Columbia Basin dropped 8 percent due to 1,060 fewer people in other seasonal work, the report states.
The jump in apple work in the south may have been caused by the earlier start to the growing season but apple bloom was lighter this year and less hand thinning was required, said Andy Gale, general manager of Stemilt AgServices in Wenatchee.
Asparagus has been hampered by fluctuating weather and growers have been concerned about getting enough laborers, Gempler said.
That's true, but 1,500 fewer workers is not accurate, said Alan Schreiber, administrator of the Washington Asparagus Commission in Pasco. "At the beginning of April we were a little short and since then we've been right on the ragged edge of adequate," he said.
The average inflation-adjusted seasonal wage rate was up 1.3 percent from two years earlier and labor is short 5.7 percent from what growers would like to have, said the report, based on survey returns from 610 growers.
It's still early to have much of a read but so far the availability of workers looks to be about the same as last year in which spot shortages in tree fruit harvest were experienced, Gempler said. The shortage was more severe in 2011, estimated at 20 percent, he said.
"But mother nature gave us a break last year by extending fall apple picking," Gempler said. "Had that not occurred, we wouldn't have had the people to get it off."
Stemilt AgServices, a subsidiary of Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, manages 8,000 acres of orchards owned and leased by Stemilt. Labor has been adequate but if shortages occur in cherry harvest it likely will be in July when more areas are picking, Gale said. Some growers have already struggled to get pickers because of a light crop and rain damage, he said.
Stemilt brought in 188 H2A visa guest workers from Mexico the first of June and will hire 150 more for apple harvest, but has had a fairly good domestic supply, he said.
Stemilt hired about 650 workers at its annual job fair on May 13, invited 450 workers back from last season and planned to use 800 from its apple lines to have enough people for cherry sorting and packing at the height of this year's season. But startup has been slow because of a light, front-end of the crop due to rain damage, said Roger Pepperl, Stemilt marketing director.
The state's seasonal agricultural employment was estimated at 34,340 in May, up from 33,190 in May 2012, according to the report. Total agricultural employment was estimated at 81,190 versus 74,690 a year earlier.