Good Fruit Grower

January 2012

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Labor Where's the leadership ON LABOR? Could Washington State develop a pilot program to bring in foreign guest-workers? by Geraldine Warner L acking federal leadership to address a shortage of workers in agriculture, the Washington State Department of Agriculture is willing to work with the state's growers to help them find workers to harvest their crops. In the past, the tree fruit industry has relied heavily on migrant workers from Mexico. However, stricter border enforcement and tighter policies in some states towards illegal immigrants appear to be stemming the flow of workers. Most Washington apple growers reported worker shortages last fall. Some growers shared workers with their neighbors. Another strategy was to pick high-valued varieties at the right stage of maturity and send the rest directly to processors rather than the fresh market. Some apples were left unpicked, according to the Washington Growers Clearing House Association. The Washington apple industry needs around 40,000 workers at the height of harvest. Only about 2,000 work- ers are recruited annually through the federal H-2A guest- worker program, which growers say is difficult to use because of its inflexibility. When growers reported insufficient workers last Octo- ber, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire made pris- oners available to help orchardists get their fruit harvested. Though only one company took up the offer, apple-picking inmates made the headlines. "I think some of the things that happened this last har- vest season have helped people to understand the signif- icance of the labor shortage and the fact that we do need to have a solution," said Dan Newhouse, director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Agriculture has been one of the bright spots in the economy lately. Washington's Director of Agriculture Dan Newhouse is ready to work with growers to solve the labor shortage. "I think agriculture is going to help pull this country out of these difficult budgetary times we're in," he said. "We have to make sure we can sustain the industry. We have to, as a nation, be able to come to grips with a solution that works." Impasse A solution in the form of immigration reform would need to come from the federal government, but Congress is at an impasse and progress seems unlikely until after the 2012 election. Mike Wade, general manager of Columbia Fruit Pack- ers, a growing and packing operation in Wenatchee, Washington, says that industry and politicians need to focus on what they can agree on, in order to solve the problem. He suggests that Washington State work with the tree fruit industry to put together a trial program to obtain essential workers, avoiding the two most con- tentious aspects of immigration reform: providing amnesty and rewarding lawbreakers. Such a program would recruit domestic as well as for- eign workers. If local people took the jobs, fewer foreign workers would be allowed in. It would provide no oppor- tunity for citizenship and would penalize criminals. Workers would be guaranteed a fair wage because the minimum wage in Washington is the highest in the nation at $9.04 an hour. Newhouse said that after learning about the lack of labor last harvest, Governor Gregoire asked the Depart- ment of Agriculture and other state agencies to look for both short-term and long-term solutions. "I would be very open to a state like Washington taking a leadership position and showing Congress that some- thing can be done," he said. "Certainly, there's too much on the line for us to continue the way we have been." He sees merit in Washington trying a pilot program, though the state would need a special dispensation from the federal government on matters relating to border security. "I'm not sure of all the obstacles we would face," he said. "But we would be open to the conversation on how we, as a state, could address this." Essential worker bill In 2009, when Newhouse was a state legislator, the Washington State Farm Bureau pushed for state legisla- tion to create an essential worker pilot program. New- house was among representatives from both parties who sponsored House Bill 1896, which would have required the Employment Security Department to petition the U.S. Congress to create an essential worker visa for aliens admitted into the country to perform seasonal work. 24 JANUARY 1, 2012 GOOD FRUIT GROWER geraldine warner

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