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‘Gone for good.’ U.S. workers flee farms, leaving WA growers struggling under old rules

By Cory McCoy, Tri-City Herald
Published: April 15, 2024, 6:00am

KENNEWICK — The beating heart of Washington’s agriculture industry is in danger, but a central Washington lawmaker has a plan to help shore up the most critical issue farmers are facing — a disappearing workforce dependent on migrant labor.

Washington is the largest grower of non-citrus tree fruit in the United States, with much of it centered on the areas in and around Yakima and the Tri-Cities.

If these farms collapse, it will impact everything from fresh fruit to juice and canned goods that many Americans take for granted.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., represents the state’s primary growing region, a strip about 100 miles wide straight down the center of the state on the east side of the Cascade Mountains.

The bulk of the state’s agricultural contribution — including more than half of the apples and cherries produced in the United States — come from Washington’s 4th Congressional District.

As a farmer himself, Newhouse knows the challenges they’re facing, and told the Tri-City Herald that what we’re seeing today is the beginning of another major shift in the agricultural workforce.

American workers have left the industry for better opportunities and more stability year-round and are gone for good, said Washington Fruit Tree Association President Jon DeVaney.

Now farmers are turning more than ever to the H2A Visa system to bring in foreign workers but it was intended to favor domestic workers and now doesn’t reflect the reality of today’s agricultural workforce.

“Farmers have been faced with a real challenge attracting enough labor to the farms, there’s a shortage of people wanting to work in a farm,” Newhouse said.

“It’s almost a necessity in Central Washington, utilizing the H2A program. I’m glad it’s there, but it’s slow and expensive and it doesn’t work for all farmers. We’re been trying to make some improvements to it, in turn improving the availability of a legal labor force.”

Newhouse believes his Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which will bolster farms through increased legal migrant guest workers, will help bridge that gap and keep farmers in business while they transition to a more secure future.

Washington saw a peak in its farm worker labor force in 2018, reaching 100,000 workers. That injection of workers was, in part, thanks to an expansion of the H2A Visa, which saw applications for guest workers begin to skyrocket a decade ago.

Before then, only about 90,000 immigrants, mostly from Mexico, were employed under the H2A program across the United States. Today that number has tripled, but farmers say it’s not enough.

While more than 311,000 H2A Visas were granted in 2023, that’s about 80,000 short of the number requested by farms. That number is inherently smaller than actual labor need though, because the H2A program is so expensive that only the largest farms can afford to use it.

Washington now uses 10% of the entire H2A pool to fill nearly 1/3 of all farm jobs in the state as more and more domestic workers choose to move on from the industry, according to data from the Washington Employment Security Department.

Nearly all of the H2A recipients are Hispanic, with the vast majority being Mexican citizens, according to the National Council of Agricultural Employers.

Tri-Cities and Yakima Valley

Half of the agriculture workers in Washington are in a four-county region in south central Washington, consisting of Yakima, Benton, Franklin and Grant counties where the Yakima Valley and Columbia Basin growing regions form the center of the state’s growing industry.

Those unfamiliar with the Pacific Northwest might think that Washington is a cool, rainy state, but that couldn’t be further from the truth for its primary growing region. And that’s why it works so well.

The weather is warmer, dryer and more predictable as the land moves away from the Cascade Mountains into the low desert of the lower Columbia River basin.

This growing region was fueled by irrigation and canal projects that harnessed the Yakima and Columbia Rivers beginning in the early 1900s. It took nearly 50 years to build out the canal systems that farmers rely on today, turning shrub steppe into the state’s most valuable farmland.

The predictability of precipitation during the tree fruit growing season is vital.

A surprise shower can ruin entire harvests, which is why drying fans that look like small wind turbines, and even helicopters, are sometimes used to get the water off fruit as it near ripeness.

This aridity also has helped turn Washington into a major wine producer.

Apple and tree fruit production labor growth peaked a few years ahead of the rest of ag industries in the state, between 2012 and 2016, as farms moved quickly to take advantage of increased guest worker availability. Those production areas have lost about a third of their workforce since 2018.

While labor is by far the biggest expense for most farmers, it’s also the most vital. If a farm doesn’t have enough workers to get fruit off of the tree at the right time, it can be catastrophic for their earnings.

While Washington is the largest apple producer in the country, more than two-thirds of apple jobs are based in these four counties. As well as more than half of the state’s other tree fruit workers and nearly all grape workers.

Washington ranks well behind California in grape production, but the state leads the nation in sweet cherry and pear production. Washington also leads in asparagus production, which is particularly labor intensive.

But those production areas have been bleeding jobs at an unsustainable rate, even as more guest worker positions have opened up.

Since 1997 Washington has lost about 2 million acres of farmland and 20 percent of its farms.

Of the more than 8,000 farms that have disappeared, more than 5,000 were lost between 2012 and 2022, according to the U.S. Farm Census.

This four county region, which stretches from Yakima to the Tri-Cities and north to Moses Lake, has lost a third of its fruit tree workforce in recent years. Of the state’s 369 farms participating in the H2A program, 210 of them are in that four county region.

Somehow farms have managed to keep production about on par with the average over the past decade, even while growers go out of business or consolidate due to overall rising costs of farming.

“You talk to almost any farmer in Central Washington, and labor is going to be 1, 2 or 3 on the list of challenges they’re facing,” Newhouse said. “It’s a perennial challenge.”

These farms were able to keep production at expected levels thanks to the influx of workers from the H2A program supplementing the declining domestic labor pool.

DeVaney said the growth in H2A visas is a direct reflection of the struggle farmers are facing when it comes to finding domestic workers.

“I think it is a difficult thing to quantify, but I think the best way to quantify the shortage is in the growth of the H2A visa program, because it’s set up to give strongly preferential treatment to domestic workers,” he said.

DeVaney said the extreme costs of the program illustrate just how dire the situation is, because no employer is going to take on those costs unless they absolutely have to.

Workers concerned

While it’s difficult to pin down any single reason for why domestic farm workers are leaving the industry, a variety of factors come into play. Lack of childcare, new laws meant to protect farm workers that resulted in lower pay, cost of living and more have all been cited.

The Seattle Times recently spoke to domestic migrant farm workers in Skagit County who feel like they’re being pushed out by the H2A program.

They said that while the H2A was meant to prioritize domestic workers, it doesn’t account for factors such as workers with families or the increased cost of traveling to farms for those who don’t live in the area.

They believe some farms are taking advantage of these differences in needs to argue that they need more H2A workers.

Last year in Quincy domestic farm workers protested a new state overtime law because they said it actually resulted in them losing hours. Workers said that law, intended to ensure fairness in the workplace, would actually result in more workers leaving the industry.

One worker reported losing half of his hours for the entire year after the law went into effect. Nothing in the law requires farms to offer overtime, so a farm could feasibly look to the H2A program to fill those excess hours rather than pay their workers overtime wages if it was cheaper.

While the 369 applications for H2A workers in Washington in 2022 isn’t equivalent to the number of farms using H2A workers, it would represent less than 7% of Washington farms currently participating. Farmers currently fill out applications by the type of job rather than the total number of workers needed for the entire farm.

That means this handful of farms now employs nearly 1/3 of all agriculture workers in the state through the H2A program.

State data makes it clear that Washington’s largest farm categories are still losing workers at an unsustainable rate, despite the increase in H2A visas issued over the past decade.

On paper it may seem like the overall number of workers has remained even, but looking at each category shows all of the growth is in niche portions of the industry, such as greenhouse farms, smaller crop types and management services.

Despite employing the most H2A recipients, Washington’s largest growing areas have still seen huge drops in employment numbers.

DeVaney believes these domestic workers who have left the industry for better opportunities and more stability year-round are gone for good.

Modernizing the H2A system

The H2A system has long been criticized by farmers for being cost prohibitive and slow. The intent of these roadblocks built into the system decades ago was to ensure domestic workers had the first shot at jobs. That doesn’t reflect the reality of the agriculture system today though.

As educational opportunities became more accessible, American workers left the fields and haven’t looked back. For decades domestic workers have been choosing to seek out better paying, less labor intensive jobs.

As of 2019, only a little more than a quarter of Washington’s ag workers were born in the United States. That rate is second only to California.

But it’s becoming harder than ever to bring in new workers. As profit margins become razor thin, the once prohibitive costs of the H2A program become punishing.

Workers must be paid at least the “adverse wage” rate, which is significantly higher than Washington’s already high $16.28 per hour minimum wage. Farmers are also responsible for covering the cost of transportation for workers and building and maintaining housing. They also have to cover hundreds of dollars in fees for each worker every season.

Those costs have resulted in a system that is typically only used by the largest employers. That leaves smaller farms with few options.

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Newhouse’s bill aims to tackle some of the largest issues, such as housing and how often workers need to apply.

The first thing the bill would do is streamline the application system, allowing farms to file a single application rather than a separate one for each type of job. That would also reduce some fees in the process.

Traditionally these jobs are then required to be posted in newspapers, but the bill would allow farmers to post the jobs online to help with recruiting.

Housing costs

The bill addresses housing, which is second only to wages in terms of cost, by allocating $1 billion in funding to rehabilitate aging housing, and increasing funding for both building new housing and rental assistance programs.

Housing is one of the primary factors that keeps small farms from being able to use the H2A program.

“If you are a small farm and need people for a couple weeks, building an apartment complex doesn’t make a lot of sense,” DeVaney said. “These severe constraints on labor supply hit smaller producers the hardest, because larger produces have both greater capital and opportunities to access these programs.”

The bill would also open up 40,000 new green cards per year for ag workers in order to help fill year round needs.

It would also create a separate category of visas with longer time frames and less restrictive renewals. Currently H2As are good for three years and require workers to leave the country for a period before they can be renewed.

This proposed new category would be good for five years and renewable if the recipient has worked in agriculture 100 days out of each year. The H2A would still be available for those who didn’t meet the criteria for the new classification. This new classification also includes an option for permanent resident status that can be applied for after 10 years.

Newhouse stressed that this isn’t a pathway to citizenship, it’s an attempt to build a more stable, legal migrant workforce.

The bill would also address wages in a way that could help farm owners, but leave the door open for lower wages for some workers. That’s because it would separate the adverse wage by job category, instead of an average across the industry. That means workers with special skill sets could earn more, while field workers could earn less.

Due to how competitive these positions are though, it likely wouldn’t be in the owner’s best interest to decrease wages.

“If we’re not highest in the country, we’re right there, at just under $20 per hour if you utilize H2A workers,” Newhouse said. “That in fact becomes the minimum wage for all farms because it’s very competitive out there between farmers trying to attract a labor force.”

DeVaney said these wages and strict housing standards have set Washington apart when it comes to the quality of life for farm workers.

E-Verify mandatory

The last piece of the bill would establish a mandatory E-Verify system for the agricultural industry, ensuring that workers are being employed legally.

Newhouse has been pushing his modernization act for several years, but so far it has not been taken up by the U.S. Senate. With a slate of new farm bills recently introduced to the senate, he’s optimistic his colleagues in the upper chamber of congress are ready to get on board.

“I think one of the obstacles to getting legislation passed is the situation we’ve seen at the southern border, particularly with an increase in illegal crossings, many of the members of Congress have been reluctant to address anything that increases the number of people coming,” Newhouse said.

“This bill is part of a solution because it gives a legal option for people to come to our country in our agricultural industry and return to their home country without the fear of not being able to come back,” he continued.

Newhouse is hopeful that these changes, if passed into law, can help buy farmers some breathing room to adjust to changes in the industry. The next challenge is going to be modernizing work forces and adapting to new technology.

Innovation and technology

He said narrowing margins and a shrinking workforce is going to drive mechanization, so it’s paramount that Congress works with farmers to help them meet the challenges that are coming with this shift in the industry. Starting with managing those labor costs, so farms can begin to invest in other areas.

“It’s not cheap, not all farmers are going to be able to adapt quick enough. If we’re going to keep going we’ve got to do it in a way we can afford,” Newhouse said. “It’s critical we address this here in D.C. to bring some needed reforms to our labor laws in agriculture so we can avoid losing more farms.”

DeVaney think there’s an equilibrium that can be achieved, allowing farmers to incentivize workers to stay in the industry by making them part of that transition.

“We need to make sure these changes don’t happen so fast that we’re priced out of the market and we can’t innovate fast enough,” he said.

DeVaney said that the workforce for farmers has never been fixed for long. Over the past century the farm workforce in Washington has shifted from families working their own small farms to locals working the harvest to an immigrant dominated labor pool.

He said that today that migrant labor pool is shifting in much the same way it did for the domestic workforce, with better education creating more opportunities and incentive to leave agriculture work.

He sees the industry transitioning to a tighter labor force that isn’t replaced by automation, but works with new tools and technology to fill the gaps farmers are increasingly unable to find workers for.