Retired Pasco man to join farm labor group on recruiting trip in Mexican border town

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 5, 2013 

The Washington Farm Labor Association is hoping to recruit about 3,000 seasonal farmworkers from Mexico to help Washington farmers harvest their crops this year.

The association and a handful of employers will be representing Washington growers at a Monday job fair in the border town of Nogales, Mexico, in an attempt to help ease farm labor shortages.

Those workers hopefully will be accepted into the federal H-2A temporary agricultural program.

Farmers say the H-2A program is seriously flawed, but it remains the only legal way to bring foreign workers to Washington to help with labor intensive crops such as apples, cherries and asparagus.

Felix Vargas of Pasco, who leaves Sunday for the job fair about 60 miles south of Tucson, Arizona, along with other members of the Washington Farm Labor Association, said more than 5,000 prospective workers already have registered to attend.

The job fair was organized by the U.S. Consulate in Nogales along with the Mexican state Sonora's department of labor, the city of Nogales and the National Chamber of Commerce.

Consulate official Megan Phaneuf has told the Washington Farm Labor Association that this job fair is the first of its kind in northern Mexico for seasonal workers, said Vargas, a retired diplomat and former vice consul in Mexico, who is now a volunteer senior adviser for the association.

The Washington group will represent about 24 employers, mostly from the tree fruit industry, Vargas said. And the association is looking for more interested employers.

Washington ranks second in the nation when it comes to labor-intensive crops, Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, previously told the Herald. The state needs 50,000 to 60,000 seasonal workers. California uses the most seasonal workers -- more than 250,000.

In 2011, Washington farmers set record-high production values for a number of crops, including labor intensive sweet cherries and apples.

The state's total value for commodities in 2011 was $9.4 billion, up 14 percent from 2010's value of $8.25 billion, according to the USDA. Of that, apples were the top commodity, with a value of $1.83 billion, while the 2011 sweet cherry crop was valued at $534 million.

Finding enough workers to harvest these and other labor intensive crops has become more difficult, so some farmers have started using the H-2A program despite its shortcomings.

Last year, 3,953 workers were brought into Washington through the H-2A program who wouldn't have been here otherwise, said Fazio, who also is going to Nogales.

And Vargas said they expect to see seasonal workers from last year return under the H-2A program.

"We need at a minimum 3,000 more," he said.

The U.S. Consulate will vet the new applications and make sure those applying have ties that would make them return to Mexico, Vargas said.

Lawmakers have talked about creating a more workable seasonal farmworker program, but in the context of immigration reform. Vargas said Washington growers can't afford to wait on an immigration reform bill that seems unlikely to be created this year.

While Vargas said they hope to see lawmakers address the agricultural industry's labor needs separately, they also are trying to make the current program as workable as possible.

The current visa applications get tied up in bureaucracy, cutting the time too close to when farmers need the labor, Vargas said.

The cost of the program limits the number of growers who are able to participate, since they bear the cost of transportation from Mexico to the job site and for housing, Vargas said.

While there is some seasonal farmworker housing such as the Ringold Seasonal Farmworker Housing at Road 170 and Ringold Road in Franklin County, Vargas said it isn't enough to meet the demand.

Hopefully, the job fair will be successful enough that it will be repeated in other border locations or at another time, Vargas said.

"My objective is that we talk to everyone," he said.

Employers interested in more information should contact the Washington Farm Labor Association at 360-455-8064.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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