State's ag employment jumped in 2009

By Kevin McCullen, Herald staff writerMarch 31, 2010 

Employment in Washington's agricultural industry grew last year, with nearly 12,300 more seasonal and permanent jobs added between January 2009 and January 2010, according to a state report released Tuesday.

Wages for seasonal workers also rose from an average of $8.79 per hour in January 2009 to $9.42 per hour in January 2010, according to a survey of 1,800 Washington agricultural growers. The state's minimum wage for 2010 is $8.55 per hour.

And mild weather in January boosted seasonal employment in the northcentral, southeast and southcentral regions of the state as workers were able to prune fruit trees, primarily apples. The number of seasonal ag jobs climbed by 7,110 from January 2009 to January 2010, an increase of 47.4 percent, the state Employment Security Department said.

"There's no such thing as a recession in the agriculture industry. People have to eat," said Bruce Grim, executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association.

There were a total of 68,330 permanent and seasonal agricultural jobs in Washington in January, up from 56,030 in January 2009, according to the state. The highest number was in the southcentral area -- Yakima and Klickitat counties -- at 21,380 in January 2010.

The next highest was 17,710 in the northcentral area -- Chelan, Douglas, Okanogan and Kittitas counties -- followed by 11,680 in the southeast area of Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties. That was up by 1,960 from January 2009.

Seasonal jobs jumped from 15,010 statewide in January 2009 to 22,120 in January 2010, with 6,910 reported in the southcentral area in January 2010 and 5,720 in the southeast, according to the report.

"In the Tri-Cities, if things go well I'd expect by May or June we'll be up to 22,000 jobs," said Dean Schau, regional labor economist.

"I don't think people realize how huge an industry agriculture is in our state. We measure our foreign exports in billions of dollars and it's going all over the world," he said.

The report does not include jobs in food processing, which fall under manufacturing. There were another estimated 40,000 workers employed statewide in food processing, including 4,000 in the Tri-Cities alone, Schau said.

Grower Jeff Gordon of Gordon Brothers in Franklin County said he was able to keep the same seasonal work crew this spring that he's had the last several years "and that's gratifying."

Gordon added, "Agriculture has always been mislabeled as the minimum-wage payer of the American economy, and it's not true and never has been. We pay good wages for good people to do a good job."

Part of the growth in the state's seasonal labor force last year was huge apple and cherry crops, which required more workers. About 60,000 seasonal workers are needed at harvest alone to pick apples, cherries, berries, peaches, and other crops, according to the Washington Farm Bureau.

Growers largely were able to secure enough workers for harvest in 2009, according to the state Employment Security Department report. Part of the reason was the recession, which prompted some unemployed workers who had moved into the building trades or construction-related jobs to return to agriculture, Grim said.

He said, however, that he's concerned about the availability of seasonal labor seasonal this year if the economy improves and those same workers return to nonagricultural jobs, particularly if the apple and cherry crops again are large.

And current immigration policy at the federal level also could limit the number of workers, he said.

The American Farm Bureau Federation has filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent new H-2A regulations from going into effect that it fears would make federal rules more burdensome and restrict the number of available workers. The federal H-2A program allows agricultural employers to obtain visas for seasonal workers if there are not enough available resident workers.

"These new H-2A rules are onerous and not workable," Grim said. "My concern is it will reduce the number of workers when higher-paying jobs open up again in other areas of the economy."

w Kevin McCullen: 582-1535; kmccullen@tricityherald.com

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