SALEM (Oregon) STATESMAN JOURNAL

May 7, 2017

 

Willamette Valley Farmers Adjust To Dwindling, Uncertain Number Of Workers

by Brook Jackson-Glidden

 

 

At the beginning of blueberry picking season last year, Anne Krahmer hired 100 workers on a Sunday. She had just 15 by Wednesday.

Krahmer works with her father, Doug Krahmer, who has farmed blueberries in the Willamette Valley for the last 30 years. She’s hired the crew for Berries Northwest since 2010. Year after year, she and her neighbors compete for workers during peak season.

As the Kramers get closer to picking season this year, they know finding enough workers will be an even bigger challenge.

The farm worker pool already has shrunk. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of workers was down 20 percent in the Pacific region (Washington and Oregon). The number of seasonal workers employed for fewer than 150 days dropped 50 percent during that same period, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).

Competition for seasonal workers has meant higher pay during crucial harvests for highly seasonal crops like strawberries and blueberries.

And the political climate has introduced an additional (but not new) challenge. A decade-long trend of Mexican-American workers leaving the country has been compounded by talks of immigration restrictions and the March arrests in Woodburn by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“I have talked to farmers whose field staff is very uneasy,” said John Zielinski, Marion County Farm Bureau president and co-owner of E.Z. Orchards in Salem. “People who are legal are carrying their documents with them, afraid something will happen.”

Area farmers are dealing with the dwindling labor force by shifting to lower labor-intensive crops, increased mechanization, retail, and "agritourism."

 

The tougher the crop

Alongside agricultural products like grass seed, maintaining and harvesting hazelnut fields is one of the lower labor-demanding crops in Oregon. Farm workers can use machinery to harvest or pick hazelnuts standing up.

"There’s a reason you’re seeing so many hazelnut farms popping up around here,” Zielinski said.

Josh Zielinski, no relation to John Zielinski, manages Alpha Nursery in North Salem with 40 to 50 hired workers. His brother Scott Zielinski manages the family farm down the street, with eight hired hands during the summer. The majority of the farm has transitioned into mechanized crops (grass seed and wheat), with some other vegetables like green beans and corn.

Because Josh Zielinski grows his nursery plants in containers, his work is less seasonal. In theory, that would mean he would have more access to workers. But seasonal overlaps can make finding hired help unpredictable and difficult.

"The seasonality is driving up the cost," Zielinski said. "You have a lot of different crops in the valley that harvest and they’re all demanding the same people. In theory, it works, but maybe the end of shipping season overlaps with the blueberry harvest."

For a high labor intensity crop such as strawberries, where workers are on their knees or bent over all day, the worker shortage is striking

And with fewer workers looking for temporary employment, short-term jobs, like picking strawberries which pays less than some other crops, are not as appealing.

When farmers grow mostly local, hyper-seasonal, low-cost produce (what you might buy in grocery store produce aisles, like berries, lettuce and squash), they’re not making as much as, say, a grass seed farmer or nurseries, which distribute nationally with a higher yield.

That means low-cost labor is crucial for their business. And as the minimum wage creeps higher and higher, some farmers say they are having a hard time competing for workers

"When the legislature puts the minimum wage at $15, the bottom of the labor market is pushed out," U-pick strawberry farmer and farm stand owner Raymond Fordyce  said.

In the past, strawberry picking wasn't solely dependent on a small crew of dedicated workers. Kids, families and casual piecework pickers would pop in and pick for a few hours.

"There’s a difference between a picker and someone who wants to make a few dollars," explained Dave Dunn, general manager of Willamette Valley Fruit Company in Salem. "The immigrant worker knows if they want to make a bunch of money, they have to work really hard."

Dunn remembers picking strawberries as a kid, but says child labor laws and wage requirements make piecework more expensive than it's worth. That makes fruit growers dependent on the highly competitive migrant workforce.

 

Staying ahead of the issue

On Feb. 16, the Day Without Immigrants, Zenith Vineyard manager Pedro Martinez called owners Tim and Kari Ramey with a problem: not a single worker was available to pick.

The Rameys paid those workers for the day anyway because the couple knows those workers are more important now than ever.

“The stories that you’ve heard, that there are no non-Hispanics interested in doing this work, is exactly right,” Tim Ramey said. "We’ve been managing this vineyard for 14 years, never had anyone who’s not Hispanic work here.”

The couple are considering mechanized solutions. Ramey is looking at a $25,000 de-leafing machine to replace the potential loss of labor, which is what he calls ‘playing defense.’

“It’s very clear that the administration’s actions and rhetoric in the aggregate will reduce the supply of labor for agriculture,” Ramey said. “What’s incredible to me is the anti-immigration rhetoric doesn’t seem to have any solution for what agriculture should do without the labor.”

Smart agriculture, also known as precision agriculture, involves farmers replacing manual labor with technology intended to simplify farm tasks. The Rameys already use drone technology to monitor the vineyard, allowing them to send workers to the right areas for irrigation or pruning.

They also have invested in another possible income source, in case the traditional crop fails. Agritourism, or the development of tourism-based activities on farms, serves as a second form of income for some farmers. Some develop farm stays or annual events, like E.Z. Orchard’s HarvestFest, wine dinners and farm market.

“In agriculture, it’s always good to be diversified with your crops or the amount of labor used,” John Zielinski said, sitting in his office at the E.Z. Orchards farm market. “Having the farm direct doesn’t use fewer workers, but it seems easier to hire at the retail level.”

Zenith’s event space hosts everything from weddings to proms, which helps the business stay profitable.

“If you have one commodity crop, it’s really scary,” Kari Ramey said.

But for some, moving into retail is less risky than trying to hire seasonal workers.

Fordyce, owner of Fordyce Farm in North Salem, doesn't even identify as a farmer anymore.

"I am a retail operation. Most farmers are producing commodities for the world market," Fordyce said.

His land is primarily u-pick, if not picked and sold in his farm store. He employs two people, and focuses on farm-direct revenue as opposed to traditional commodity dollars.

But he said many farmers can't easily switch to u-pick.

"I like people a lot, and I like having lots of people on my farm," Fordyce explained. "But that’s not real typical for farmers, I have to admit."

 

A fight for legal labor

On that Wednesday, with a crew of 15 pickers for some 500 acres of blueberries, Anne Krahmer had to make a decision: Give up for the day, or go ahead?

“[Doug] wanted me to shut the crew down, and I said, ‘No, let’s let these people pick,’” she said. “By Thursday we were 35, and by Friday we were back up to 75… They’re going where there’s going to be the best money for the day.”

Doug Krahmer has seen immigration legislation affect his labor pool in the past, and this year, he’s bracing for a new challenge.

“A lot of our picking labor comes out of Madera, California, and whether those people are going to be willing to travel knowing the dangers and pitfalls that they can encounter is going to be interesting,” Krahmer said.

The Krahmers say all of their workers are required to provide the necessary employment documentation to harvest, like most farms in the Willamette Valley.

That being said, the large number of non-legal workers suggests most are using falsified documents. According to a National Agricultural Workers Survey, an estimated 46 percent of farm workers can’t legally work in the United States.

“To hire anyone, you need to collect an I-9,” said Tim Bernasek, legal counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau. “What I say [to farmers] is that you should inspect local documents from five feet away. The farmers that I know are doing that. But we believe that a significant portion of those documents are invalid.”

 

Recent immigration reforms

Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

Created the H-2A and Special Agricultural Workers programs — legal ways for foreign workers to enter the country.

Mandated that the Immigration and Naturalization Service needed warrants to raid farms

The number of undocumented farm workers decreases from more than 75 percent to around 50 percent

Issues with the policies included

Non-citizens can only apply to work for a period of time for one farmer

Oregon's short picking seasons are not conducive to the single-farmer limitations of H-2A

Results

Amnesty aids allowed thousands of undocumented workers to came into the country, according to the United Northwest Farmworkers and Treeplanters, known as the Spanish acronym PCUN

Because of the excess of farm workers in 1988, wages dropped dramatically, if they found work at all

 

 

Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996

Many amnesty programs signed in 1986 evaporated

Ability to deport undocumented workers eased

Migrant workers (workers crossing borders) decreased from 59 percent in 1997-1998 to 17 percent in 2011-2012

Workers who follow crop seasons up and down the West Coast dropped to single digit percentage points between 2000-2007