Best farm pay found in Washington wheat fields

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YAKIMA — Let's say you're looking for decent-paying farm work.

The state's annual Agricultural Workforce Report would suggest the wheat industry first before tree fruit. But stay in the Northwest, where farm work pays more than other agricultural regions of the country.

Those are just a few of the facts to be gleaned from 75 pages of agriculture statistics recently released by the state Employment Security Department.

The document, compiled as a matter of state law, covers everything from crop values to exports to farm labor wages. The figures are for 2011 and 2012, though the report was published in December 2013 and was released last week.

Farm associations, university economists, legislators and human resource organizations all consult the annual report, said John Wines, an economic analyst for Employment Security.

The state produced $9.2 billion worth of agricultural products in 2011, according to the report.

In 2012, farmworkers earned $2.1 billion, while agricultural manufacturing workers — millers, bakers, slaughterhouse workers — took in another $1.7 billion.

The Yakima region has far and away the most farm jobs.

The Yakima metropolitan statistical area accounts for more than a quarter of the state's entire agricultural workforce, almost 46,000 out of the state's 165,000 in the peak month of July, followed by the Wenatchee area at 26,460.

Also, the best pay can be found in the wheat fields.

Average hourly earnings for wheat laborers were $16.17 for 2012, followed closely by potatoes at $16.12. Apples, Yakima County's iconic crop, were the worst at $12.65 in average earnings, even lower than other kinds of tree fruit.

Whatever you do, don't leave the Northwest.

Laborers in Washington and Oregon are typically paid more per hour than in other states — about 16 percent more than in California. The Washington average for 2012 was $14.14 per hour.

Washington farmers also tend to spend more on workers than their counterparts in other states. In 2011, labor expenses for Washington were nearly 20 percent of the agricultural production expenses, compared to 12 percent nationwide

Farm work is growing in the state, too. Average monthly employment rose from 81,573 workers in 2011 to 87,249 workers in 2012 — a 7 percent increase. Seasonal work, roughly half the total, saw a proportional jump.

If you're not from the United States, you can still get in on the seasonal action.

The federal H-2A program allows employers to hire foreign temporary workers if they can't find enough residents to take the jobs.