Good Fruit Grower

May 1

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R ecruiting fruit pickers through the H-2A foreign guest worker program is a better alternative than just hoping workers show up at the farm, orchardists in north central Washington say. But growers who aren't large enough to employ their own human resources staff should consider having a third party process the workers. Mark Stennes, who farms with his brother Kevin at Pateros, and Sam Godwin, a small grower with orchards in the Tonasket area, have both obtained foreign guest workers through the Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA), which handles 80 percent of the H-2A contracts in Washington State. "Unless you're a vertically inte- grated operator, it's not possible to do it alone," Stennes said. "I would not dive into it without a third party." WAFLA can help small growers to reduce the financial burden of using the H-2A program by sharing workers with other grow- ers. (See "Sharing workers saves costs.") In the past decade, the number of H-2A workers com- ing to Washington has increased from fewer than 500 to more than 9,000. Nationally, more than 100,000 H-2A workers are employed annually. The largest per-capita H-2A usage in Washington is in Okanogan County, where Stennes and Godwin (and Gebbers Farms, one of the largest H-2A users in the coun- try) are located. Okanogan is the northernmost county in central Washington, bordering Canada, and has a smaller supply of migrant workers than counties further south. Difficult Stennes is a fourth-generation grower whose family has 550 acres of orchard with 25 fruit varieties in a num- ber of locations and at a range of elevations. Godwin has 125 acres of apples, pears, and cherries in blocks rang- ing from 10 to 40 acres scattered over a 15-mile radius. During the last decade, it's become increasingly difficult for them to find enough workers. The Stennes family had two H-2A contracts last year, the first of which was for 26 workers for the full season, from June to October. The second was a shared con- tract, under which 28 additional workers began working for another employer in the Columbia Basin and then moved to the Stennes ranch in Pateros in late July. About a third of their cherry pickers and half their apple pickers were H-2A guest workers last season, Stennes said. Godwin said he typically needs about 40 cherry pick- ers and 20 pickers for apples. Two years ago, he had a very light cherry crop and only three people showed up to pick. He got the crop harvested with his year-round workers, but it was a wake-up call, he said. Last year, he checked into the H-2A program and found that he could share workers with another farmer. So, he partnered with his parents, who also have orchards. Together, they brought in 28 H-2A workers for their combined 200 acres. WAFLA helped them structure Get the housing and transportation parts right, growers advise. by Geraldine Warner Mark Stennes Labor H-2A is doable–WITH the contract so that the workers could move between farms as needed and keep busy the whole season long. The crew arrived for cherry harvest in mid-June and left in October after the apples were picked. The association also helped them to train the foremen before the H-2A workers arrived. Housing One of the biggest barriers to using the H-2A program is the need to provide housing for the workers, Stennes said. His family remodeled their existing farm worker housing. The estimated cost of providing new housing 24 MAY 1, 2015 Good Fruit Grower

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