Representatives from a business group are pushing lawmakers to work on legislation to bring in more farm laborers.
Washington state produced 28 percent of all asparagus eaten between 1998 and 2000 in the United States, according to a report released this week. But production dropped to 5.1 percent between 2010 and 2012.
A lack of workers was cited as a reason for the drop, with 10 percent of Washington’s asparagus crop lost because farmers did not have enough people to cut it, the study said.
Washington has lost an estimated $43 million in asparagus production since 2000, the study said. Some of the drop was also attributed to laws allowing the U.S. to import the crop tariff-free from Peru.
People interested in reforming the migrant guest worker program met Friday with U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, who told them they were preaching to the choir.
“He’s really optimistic that they’ll be able to get something done and moving forward,” Franklin County farmer Steve Cooper said of Hastings. “But what we’re confronting is the politics involved with it.”
Tom Gurr, a spokesman for the Partnership for a New American Economy, which authorized the farm labor study, said the group is encouraged by House Speaker John Boehner’s recent statement of immigration principles, which include meeting the needs of the agriculture industry with temporary workers, without displacing American workers.
The Senate passed an immigration reform bill last year that would allow farms to bring in up to 300,000 guest workers, but the House has resisted passing a comprehensive immigration package.
Any reform to the guest worker program would be an improvement over the system now in place and would allow American growers to work toward reclaiming their former share of the market, the study said.
Numerous crops have increasingly been grown in other countries because farmers in the United States are not able to bring in the workers they need, with the number of imported crops brought into the country increasing by 79 percent in recent years, the study said. The current H-2A visa program that allows farms to bring in temporary workers is “unworkable and expensive” for many American farms.
Congress will need to act to get the trend to change, said Martin Valadez, CEO of the Columbia Basin College Foundation.
“Right now, if nothing changes, things are going to continue to get worse,” said Valadez, also chief operating officer for the state association of Hispanic chambers of commerce. “And we’re going to depend more and more on imported agriculture.”
The United States may soon have to decide between importing its farm workforce or importing its food, said Cooper, the state Farm Bureau’s vice president for policy development. The need for workers affects not only asparagus and tree fruits like cherries and apples, but also row crops like hay and wheat.
“I can’t think of one commodity that hasn’t been touched by a migrant worker somewhere,” he said.
Workers are needed all over farms, not just in unskilled positions. Cooper said his farm pays an average of $13.50 per hour, with workers having to know the latest farming technology.
“They’re pretty trained guys,” he said. “I can’t just pick somebody off the street and throw him in a tractor, it really is a skilled workforce.”
The Partnership for a New American Economy includes representatives from companies like AT&T and Boeing, as well as political leaders like mayors Michael Nutter of Philadelphia and Julian Castro of San Antonio