A recent USDA report shows farmers and ranchers in Oregon and Washington hired more workers and gave them more hours this year than last, even as many fruit producers continued to report labor shortages.
According to a report released last week by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, 103,000 workers were employed on farming operations in Washington and Oregon during the week of Oct. 7-13, an increase of 13,000 workers from last year. The average worker put in 43.7 hours this year, as opposed to 41.4 hours in 2011.
Wages also increased this year, up $1.54 per hour to $13.59.
Nationally, farms and ranches employed 872,000 workers, up 44,000 workers from October 2011. National farm and ranch wages rose 62 cents to $12.04 per hour.
While we are thankful that producers were able to find more workers this year than last, an increase in the average work week and wages suggests that there is still a significant shortage of labor in orchards and packinghouses in the Northwest.
Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Grower's League, described 2012, with its record apple crop and tight labor supply, as a "picker's market." Laborers were able renegotiate wages or shop around for a better deal.
While that's good for the workers, growers aren't in a position to demand higher prices to cover higher costs.
Larger producers have an edge over their smaller colleagues, who find it more difficult to keep crews busy over longer periods. In many cases, those who could find workers set them to picking higher valued varieties, while letting the cheaper fruit hang.
We have often observed with some frustration that in areas of the Northwest where unemployment has averaged 8 to 10 percent, growers and packers of many farm products can't find enough workers to harvest and process their crops.
The truth is, labor-intensive tree fruit and vegetable operations here and in many places around the country depend on immigrant labor. Because federal policy has made it increasingly difficult to bring in legal, temporary workers, more and more of the load falls to immigrants already in the United States, legally or otherwise.
As the U.S. economy weakened, some illegal immigrants returned home to weather the downturn. Labor experts say that fewer immigrants from Mexico and Central America are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally to replace them because of tighter border controls and fear of drug cartels.
There has been some talk that immigration reform may be one of the tough issues that will be confronted now that the election is over. The H-2A guestworker program must be overhauled and streamlined. More importantly, the status of millions of illegal immigrants now hiding in plain sight in communities all across the country must be determined.
It's a tall order. Whether any of this is accomplished by one omnibus reform bill, or several more palatable, bite-sized measures is unimportant.
The status quo cannot stand. It serves no one.