Each year, it seems to get more difficult for Mercer Canyons to find enough workers to care for and harvest its vegetables and almost 1,000 acres of vineyards.
So next year, Mercer Canyons will testing the federal H-2A temporary agricultural program.
This week, the farm along the border of Benton and Klickitat counties broke ground on housing for up to 48 farm workers, said Ryan Ayres, Mercer Canyons chief financial officer. One requirement of the federal guest worker program is to provide housing for the workers.
While some field work can be done by machine, Ayres said the grape vines must be pruned and thinned by hand. And even with machine harvesting, about 250 workers are needed at the height of the season.
Too few workers
Long gone are the days when people looking for work would line up outside a farm office or drive directly into an orchard.
The state's problem with finding enough agricultural labor has been growing since the border was closed after 9/11, said Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association.
Washington ranks second in the nation when it comes to labor-intensive crops, Fazio said. The state needs 50,000 to 60,000 seasonal workers. California uses the most seasonal workers -- more than 250,000.
In 1986, about 3 million undocumented people were able to become legal residents through an amnesty program, Fazio said. The process was difficult, he said, and the majority of people who ended up qualifying were farm workers. However, many moved away from farm work.
At the same time, the I-9 form was created, which was intended to end the hiring of illegal workers. On the forms, workers provide information including their Social Security numbers.
"That failed miserably," Fazio said, because employers had no requirement to verify the I-9 forms.
Between then and 2001, there was the perfect guest worker program, Fazio said. People came illegally, worked and then went home, he said.
"We have a huge problem," Fazio said. "We don't have enough workers now, and the workers who are not here are not authorized to be here."
And if farmers hire them, they could lose them the next day, he said. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement now audits I-9 forms. Anyone who can't legally work in the country is fired, but they aren't deported.
To top it off, the federal government has made the H-2A program basically unusable, Fazio said. For example, farmers are directed to report each time a worker does not show up, but it isn't normal to take attendance of pickers.
And this year, they weren't allowed to have productivity requirements in the contract, he said.
"Every job in America has a productivity requirement," Fazio said.
Pasco immigration attorney Tom Roach and Fazio have tried to get illegal workers into the H-2A program.
The only legal way to be a seasonal farm worker from another country is the H-2A visa, Roach said. This year, he's dealt with three cases in which farm workers have been told by U.S. officials in Mexico that they cannot qualify for the visa.
Typically, Roach said, those workers would be permanently barred from legally entering the U.S. because they have entered illegally, returned to their family in Mexico, and then come back illegally to work for several years.
But the law does offer a pardon -- or waiver -- of that bar, Roach said. Although all three workers should have qualified, two were denied and the other has not received an answer.
All three had family and owned property in Mexico and proved they intend to return after working, Roach said. They did not have a criminal background and would benefit the U.S. economy by doing work Americans won't, he said.
"The farmers want a stable and legal workforce," Roach said. "We are jumping through the hoops to get that."
Working with the feds
Denny Hayden of Hayden Farms Inc., north of Pasco, said H-2A doesn't work for his operation.
The program isn't flexible, and it is costly, he said, requiring the farmer to pay a prevailing wage, provide housing and transportation.
So far, Hayden said, his farm has found enough workers. Harvest comes early for his crops, so his farm tends to get first crack at available labor, which is a mix of locals and migrants from other areas -- including California.
"We can't survive without them," Hayden said. "They are the lifeblood of our industry in the specialty crops."
Through the years, Hayden said, he's built up a labor force for his 450 acres of apples and cherries. He keeps as many as 50 workers busy almost year-round.
Cherry harvest is when Hayden said his demand for labor is the highest, needing up to 350 workers to pick. But the peak season lasts only about three weeks.
However, in the past three to five years, finding workers has become more difficult, Hayden said.
The reason more people are using the guest worker program is "absolute desperation," Fazio said.
Fazio said he has signed up three new people for the guest worker program next year. Planning must start at least three months before workers are needed, he said.
Ayres said Mercer Canyons considered the guest worker program for more than three years before committing, and they've been told the first year will be difficult. But they hope to get workers through the program who can be trained -- and will return each year.
Ayres said Mercer Canyons can't apply for guest workers just yet. They will ask for approval for 40 to 48 guest workers from March through September. Those workers would help with vineyard pruning in the spring, transition to other Mercer crops and then work for the first part of wine grape harvest.
In addition to addressing the challenge of finding workers, Ayres said his company hopes entering the H-2A program will make for an easier transition if federal policies and regulations change on who farmers can hire.
Hayden said the agriculture industry is always "one political decision away from disaster."
Search for efficiency
Research is under way to ease the demand for labor.
However, Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission in Wenatchee, said it isn't as simple as finding a machine to harvest apples.
Instead, scientists are looking at a more comprehensive approach. The goals include making an orchard more productive on a per-acre basis and producing more quality fruit so more of the fruit picked is marketable, he said.
Creating better rootstocks and cultivars, developing tree architecture and trees that are resistant to disease all help to create an even crop that is easier to manage, McFerson said.
The change to higher-density orchards is under way, which allows for lower ladders, he said.
With a fruiting wall, the trees are developed into a canopy about 18 inches wide, so a worker doesn't have to reach that far to thin, prune or pick, McFerson said.
And each year, as much as 4 percent of the state's orchards are being renovated, McFerson said.
"Our average production per acre is steadily on the rise," he said.
Most of the labor costs for orchard operators -- whether cherries, pears or apples -- is during harvest, McFerson said.
"We need high-quality pickers who don't damage the fruit when they are picking it so it reaches the consumers in good shape," he said.
Researchers also are working on mechanical assists to harvest, such as platforms and pneumatic equipment, akin to a tube used at a bank drive-thru.
There also is a machine, essentially a shop vacuum, being used to gently transport apples picked by hand into bins, McFerson said. It isn't ready for commercialization, but it is being field-tested by DBR Conveyor Concepts of Michigan.
"Our labor issues are not going to go away," McFerson said. "They won't be solved politically, and we can't solve everything with research or technology either."
Saving labor-intensive agriculture
Fazio said the only reason that hundreds of thousands of tons of apples didn't fall to the ground this year is because of the H-2A program.
A total of 3,953 workers were brought into Washington through that program who wouldn't have been here otherwise, he said.
That's about 25 percent more workers than last year.
"The H-2A program saved our bacon this year," Fazio said. "It alleviated the pressure."
But Fazio said the nation needs a workable guest worker program. That's what will save labor intensive agriculture in Washington state.
And while Mercer Canyons plans to use the current guest worker program, Ayres said his company needs a program that is more easier to use and benefits the workers and employers.