Our Voice: Labor shortage spurs Mid-Columbia farmers to get innovative

February 12, 2013 

We've all heard the stories about the shortage of farm labor in our state.

And we know that despite some seemingly positive signs coming out of Washington, D.C., the issue of immigration reform is not going to be solved quickly. It is a massive and complex problem and a political lightning rod.

Knowing that improvements are not forthcoming, we admire the recent decision by the Washington Farm Labor Association to work in a proactive way with the system we've got.

Representatives recently attended a job fair in Nogales, Mexico, hoping to recruit at least 3,000 additional farmworkers under the existing H-2A temporary agricultural program.

This is the first job fair of its kind in northern Mexico for seasonal workers and was organized by the U.S. Consulate in Nogales and the state of Sonora's department of labor, the city of Nogales and the National Chamber of Commerce. That's a whole lot of folks working together to try to find a new path to temporary employment in the United States.

The Washington contingent included representatives of 24 employers, many of them in the tree-fruit industry. It also included Felix Vargas of Pasco, a retired diplomat and former vice consul in Mexico. Vargas is now a volunteer with the Washington Farm Labor Association.

Washington is second in the nation for labor intensive crop production, according to the association, needing 50,000 to 60,000 seasonal farmworkers to get the produce out of the fields, orchards and vineyards. We've seen seasons in recent years where fruit was left on the trees and crops were plowed under because no workers were available to harvest them.

And while farmers aren't big fans of the H-2A program and call it flawed, it's the only legal way to bring foreign workers into the country to pick the crops. Even with its shortcomings, the program is better than the alternative of losing a valuable crop because there's no one to harvest it.

Our state set records in 2011 for production in such labor-intensive crops as sweet cherries and apples. The value for commodities that year was $9.4 billion in Washington, up 14 percent from the year prior, according to the USDA. The apple crop in 2012 was up 19 percent over the previous record.

Farmers are doing their part to grow fantastic crops that help spur our region's economy, and something needs to be done to help them get their products from the farm to the table.

Almost 4,000 workers were brought to Washington on the H-2A program last year, and an additional 3,000 are needed. The H-2A applications will be reviewed to ensure that the applicants have ties to Mexico that will make them return to their home country after the work is done.

Other issues -- such as the length of time it takes for bureaucrats to process the applications and a lack of seasonal housing here -- complicate the program. And farmers must pay the cost of transportation from Mexico as well as housing, limiting the number of farmers who can afford to participate.

But, still, it's better than letting the crops rot in the fields. We're a long way from solving the problem, but ingenuity is a trait of the industry.

Farmers have always been the kind to work with the tools at hand, and this is another example of innovation sparked by a situation that is less than ideal. Farmers feed the world, but they can't do that without a skilled work force.

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