Agricultural labor is not just an issue for farmers. For every job on the farm, there are two to three more supported in transportation, food processing, equipment and supply manufacturing, sales and marketing, and other fields beyond rural farm communities.
AS debate over federal immigration policy and enforcement has taken center-stage in Washington, D.C., it is worth remembering the potential impacts of these decisions on our state’s economy and particularly on the economy of rural Washington.
Agriculture remains a vital and growing sector of our state’s economy. Agriculture and food processing annually is a $51 billion industry, supporting 160,000 jobs and generating $15 billion in exports. Beyond providing safe and healthy food for Washingtonians, agriculture is an industry that provides stability to our economy during times of turmoil and recession and that sustains rural communities that have not benefitted from boom times in other industries. However, these benefits should not be taken for granted.
Many of Washington’s largest and most valuable crops depend on seasonal hand labor to be successfully grown and harvested. Berries, hops, grapes, cherries, pears and our state’s iconic apples all depend on this able and willing workforce. Unfortunately, growers face a struggle to find qualified workers, and this shortage constrains the ability to produce more labor-intensive fresh fruits and vegetables. A 2015 study by the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform found that the lack of available farm labor to meet the demands for fresh produce production costs the U.S. economy $3.3 billion a year.
Farmers follow the law to verify that employees are legally present and authorized to work in the United States. But at the peak of harvest and with workers moving between employers in a matter of days or hours, catching discrepancies can be difficult. As a result, national estimates of the percentage of agricultural workers without valid documents range between 50-75 percent.
The ongoing shortage of available seasonal farm labor and the uncertainty related to the legal status of the existing workforce has prompted many growers to attempt to use a federal temporary guest-worker visa program for agriculture, known as H-2A. Such a decision is not taken lightly, as the program is extremely complex and requires verification that domestic workers are not available. Employers must also cover the cost of transporting the employees, provide housing and pay wages substantially above the prevailing rates for comparable work. That the use of the program in Washington has expanded from 814 jobs filled in 2006 to 13,697 jobs in 2016 despite these disadvantages is further proof of the acute shortage of farm labor.
But the H2-A program needs significant reform and cannot be viewed as a complete solution to agriculture’s labor needs. Not only is the program difficult to use without a dedicated expert on staff or the services of an outside consultant, the federal agencies charged with managing the program are also finding it difficult to process applications and border crossings in a timely manner. Sadly, far too many growers have had perishable crops ready for harvest only to find that their workers’ entry into the U.S. has been delayed by days or even weeks.
Washington agriculture needs an immigration solution that allows access to workers willing and able to do seasonal farm work, which fewer American citizens wish to perform. Enforcement of our immigration laws must be a part of this solution, but it must happen concurrently with guest worker and related reforms to ensure that crops do not go unpicked for lack of labor. And these reforms must work not just for large growers with the resources to navigate the complex and expensive H2-A program, but for small farmers as well. Such solutions are possible, and nationwide alliances such as the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (agworkforcecoalition.org) are working to bring them about.
Agricultural labor is not just an issue for farmers. For every job on the farm, there are two to three more supported in transportation, food processing, equipment and supply manufacturing, sales and marketing, and other fields beyond rural farm communities. Every Washingtonian who cares about supporting and growing jobs in our state and who enjoys eating fresh, healthful and safe food should encourage Congress and the new administration to pair enforcement with meaningful and effective reform of our immigration and nonimmigrant worker programs.
Information in this article, originally published Feb. 14, 2017 was corrected Feb.16, 2017. A previous version of this story failed to identify Sergio Marquez, owner of Marquez Farms in Wapato, in a photo caption.