OLYMPIA — Foreign guestworkers hired by the farm labor association WAFLA harvested about one-seventh of the total production value of Washington apples, pears and cherries in 2015.
A total of 7,779 H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers hired by WAFLA for growers harvested 490,000 tons of fruit valued at $424.3 million in 2015, according to ECONorthwest, a Portland business consulting firm, hired by WAFLA.
The report, released Aug. 23, is based on the 7,779 WAFLA H-2A workers, not the total 11,844 H-2A workers hired in the state that year. The difference was hired directly by several large growers.
The total economic impact of the WAFLA H-2A workers is $619 million when indirect supply chain and induced payroll effects from local production of the fruit are added in, the report says.
The total production value of Washington apples, pears and sweet and tart cherries was $3 billion in 2015, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
“Decision makers in Washington, D.C., are asking us to make the business case for the legal worker program and our study does just that,” said Dan Fazio, WAFLA director.
The study demonstrates the economic importance of H-2A workers to the Washington economy in light of well-documented labor shortages, he said.
The number of domestic seasonal farmworkers in the state has been flat to declining at about 50,000 annually while statewide H-2A use has increased, he said. Statewide H-2A reached 13,641 in 2016 and is expected to exceed 15,000 this year.
Domestic tree fruit employment has declined 7 percent since 2010, the report says.
The 7,779 WAFLA H-2A workers in 2015 compares with 5,955 in 2014 for 460,000 tons and $270.5 million in production value, the report shows.
“This is a solid report based on reliable sources and using accepted methodology. It shows the economic impact of H-2A workers on the Washington fruit industry and Washington economy,” said Desmond O’Rourke, a world apple analyst and retired Washington State University agricultural economist.
“While the study finding are positive, they are also a cause for alarm. What happens if the H-2A program is curtailed or eliminated, a real possibility in the present political climate?” O’Rourke said.
WSU has projected farm labor will decrease at .7 to 1.4 percent per year through 2038. A WSU study found labor represents 17 percent of variable costs of all U.S. crops but 48 percent of variable tree fruit costs, the report says.
The report assumes an average annual wage of $24,932 and assumes H-2A workers send 80 percent of their earnings to relatives at home.
The $424.3 million in production value for 2015 includes $38.8 million in what the workers spend locally and $9.2 million in housing, transportation and administrative costs.