By Kevin McCullen Tri-City Herald
TRI-CITIES — Slowdowns in other industries may be helping sustain the labor pool for Washington’s agricultural employers.
Growers, processors and packers generally believe they should have enough help for harvest, pruning and other seasonal work this year. But leaders of several trade groups and others say they fear the labor supply will tighten in the future as workers again leave agriculture for higher-paying jobs in the construction industry as the economy recovers.
The labor supply also could be further restricted in the future without the adoption of a sound guest-worker policy by the federal government, according to farm groups.
But for now there aren’t many complaints about worker supply.
“Labor seems to be plentiful. We don’t seem to have any problem getting workers,” said Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission.
Asparagus harvest is under way across the region, although predominantly cool and cloudy weather over the past week has stretched it out, Schreiber said. And the amount of asparagus harvested in Washington is declining — going from 9,000 acres in 2006 to 6,000 acres in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service — so there is less demand for workers, he said.
Statewide, total agricultural employment has increased this year, predominantly because of winter pruning, Washington’s State Employment Security Department said in a recent report.
There were 66,980 employed statewide in agriculture in February, including 23,420 seasonal and 43,560 full-time workers, the department said. That’s up by 7,620 from February 2009.
In Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties — the Southeast region — there were 6,600 seasonal and 5,610 full-time workers employed in February, up by 1,840 from February 2009, the state Employment Security Department said.
Pruning for apples (3,475), grapes (1,077) and cherries (471) accounted for most of the seasonal agricultural work in the region, the department said.
Statewide, agricultural employers found the workers they needed in February, the most recent month for which statistics are available.
Questions on the labor survey asked growers if they failed to complete work because of lack of available seasonal labor, and how many more workers they could have used. The weighted percent of labor shortage employment was 0 percent, the department said.
“So far, everything we’re hearing is the labor situation looks good for this year,” said Jon DeVaney, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, which has 40 members. “Unfortunately, the slowdown in the housing industry has meant that workers in construction trades have come back to work in our industry.
“Longer range, there is a concern among our members that next year if the economy perks up and there are new (guest worker) rules in place that are harder to navigate, we could be looking at a tighter labor market,” DeVaney said.
Growers and packers in the fruit tree industry should have a better picture of the labor situation in the mid to latter part of June, when cherry harvest is under way and workers also are needed for packing and to hand-thin apple orchards, said Bruce Grim, executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association.
“If we don’t have much hand-thinning because workers are needed to harvest cherries, we could be short,” Grim said.
He said it is too early yet to know if “our labor situation needs will line up with the supply.” So far, based on bloom conditions, he said the apple crop could be larger than last year, while pear and cherry crops could be slightly less than a year ago.
Some seasonal workers will have new housing available to them this summer when six two-bedroom, two-bath duplexes open near Ringold. The $3.25 million Ringold Farmworker Housing complex, paid for with a combination of state and private money, is expected to open as early as mid-July or in August, said David Manterola, a Washington Farm Labor Association board member.
The Farm Labor Association will own and manage the buildings and keep a manager onsite, he said. The complex, which will be open for 10 months each year, will have room for about 96 seasonal workers.
Most of the beds will be rented to growers, who will pay for lodging for their workers, Manterola said. About 10 percent of the rooms will be available to workers on a walk-in basis.
No alcohol or guns will be allowed in the complex, Manterola said, under camp rules that were written by a committee of five local growers.
“The whole idea is to keep it under local control so local farmers have a say in how it is run,” he said