An attempt by the Washington Farm Labor Association to recruit Mexican workers to help harvest the state's crops this year is off to a good start.
About 3,600 Mexican workers already have submitted applications to work for Washington farmers through the federal H-2A temporary agricultural program after a job fair in Mexico.
Felix Vargas of Pasco said the job fair -- held Monday in the border town of Nogales, Mexico, about 60 miles south of Tucson, Ariz. -- appears to be a success. He and other members of the Washington Farm Labor Association represented about 25 farmers at the event.
"This is an effort to help our Washington growers fill jobs that are needed where Americans and residents within the U.S. are unwilling or unable to do this work," said Vargas, who flew back to Pasco on Wednesday.
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A shortage of farm workers hurts the agricultural sector and the state economy, he said.
"If these crops aren't picked, everyone loses," said Vargas, a retired diplomat and former vice consul in Mexico who is a volunteer senior adviser for the association.
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 production records 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.
Fazio told the Herald on Wednesday that about 3,000 of those workers were brought through the association. This year, the association hopes to help employers bring 4,000 workers.
That could bring Washington up to 5,000 workers here on the work visa from the H-2A program, a 25 percent increase from last year, Fazio said.
With the job fair, Fazio said the U.S. Consulate in Nogales and the Mexican government have shown their willingness to work together on helping to create a legal work force for Washington farmers.
The job fair was organized by the consulate, the Mexican state of Sonora's department of labor, the city of Nogales and the National Chamber of Commerce.
More than 5,000 people attended the job fair, which included representatives of the agricultural, construction and hospitality industries, Vargas said.
About 3,600 of those attended one of nine presentations describing job opportunities, the crops, the seasons and what can be expected in terms of pay, housing and transportation in Washington. Vargas said after speaking to each group of 400 people, between 20 to 30 would come up to ask questions. Visa questions were referred to the consulate.
The goal is to have workers approved through the H-2A program and able to begin working for Washington growers in April, Vargas said.
Fazio said the first H-2A workers already arrived this month. Several employers already have received approval for the program, while others are in the process.
The workers might end up working for multiple Washington farmers during the harvest season, with each farm offering a different contract, Fazio said. That helps farmers share some costs.
The highest need for seasonal workers is between May 20 and June 10, he said.
A Mexican recruiting agency has been contracted to begin the process of checking applications and interviewing candidates, Vargas said.
The timeline is ambitious. Several U.S. agencies need to approve each application before it is sent to the consulate, Vargas said. Consulate officials and Mexican agencies have expressed their willingness to help move the process along. The association will follow up on next steps with the consulate this week.
Registration for the job fair had to be cut off at 5,300 people. Given its popularity, Vargas said the association is considering a repeat, perhaps on multiple days or multiple times a year.
"We've started something here which I think is going to make a very positive impact on the agricultural industry," he said.
Employers interested in more information should contact the Washington Farm Labor Association at 360-455-8064.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; email@example.com