Labor outlook tight for many growers
By MITCH LIES
THE DALLES, Ore. -- Cherry grower Mike Omeg pays his workers well, provides good housing free of cost, and treats them well.
As a result, recruiting workers to pick his cherries for six weeks each summer hasn't been a problem.
Until this year.
"I had to really push hard to get enough labor this year," Omeg said.
"It started last year, and it has become very apparent this year. There are not enough hands to pick our crops," he said.
Omeg, like hundreds of Northwest farmers, relies on workers to drive up from California after harvests slow there to harvest the Northwest's bountiful fruit and vegetable crops.
He calls several of his regulars to secure commitments beginning in early spring.
The commitments, this year, didn't come like expected.
"This year I had to send our production manager to California to talk to people to make sure we had enough workers lined up," he said.
Omeg's experiences aren't unique, said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council for Agricultural Employers.
"This is going on all across the country," Gasperini said. "It's not just the West or the East.
"They started converting fields from specialty crops to row crops in Alabama and Georgia," Gasperini said. "Florida had a hard time getting help. Even Michigan, where they lost a substantial portion of their apple crop, had a hard time getting labor."
Gasperini said several factors are contributing to the farm labor shortage, including that Congress refuses to tackle comprehensive labor reform and that states are adopting a patchwork of immigration legislation.
Also, Gasperini said, immigration enforcement is being stepped up.
"The extreme enforcement policy isn't helping," he said. "It has disrupted normal migrant patterns."
Also, Gasperini said, fewer Latinos are attempting to cross the border to the U.S. due to an improved economy in Mexico, coupled with tightened border security.
As harvest season approaches, Omeg is comfortable he has the 250 seasonal workers lined up that he needs to meet his labor needs.
"I'm fortunate we are getting enough labor this year," he said.
But he wonders how long that will be the case.
"We've been feeling little ripples of a potential problem in our labor," he said. "I think now the storm is going to start hitting us.
"I think it is going to start this year and be really bad next year," Omeg said.
"The labor situation is going to be the key factor in who is successful in farming, at least in cherries," he said. "It is not going to be how well you grow cherries, or how well you manage your business. It's going to be whether you get enough labor."