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Yakima growers say apricots, cherries, asparagus appear to be on schedule

For the growers of Yakima Valley’s early crops, it’s a so-far-so-good spring.

Apricot trees are covered with popcorn-like white blossoms, cherries are expected to start blooming in early April, and there are signs that asparagus shoots are stirring from their winter sleep.

But growers are keeping an eye on Mother Nature, ready with sprinklers and wind machines just in case the weather turns cold and endangers the budding fruit.

“So far, we have avoided the crop damage with the cold snap last year,” said Sean Gilbert, president of Gilbert Orchards.

But growers said there are other concerns, spurred by the coronavirus pandemic and changes in how farmworkers should be paid.

While the weather has been holding up so far, growers say it’s too early to tell what the harvest will be like.

“A lot of things can happen between now and the harvest,” said Tim Kovis, spokesman for the Washington State Tree Fruit Commission. “The folks I’ve talked with are optimistic about how their trees are budding now.”

Apricots are the first tree fruit that usually comes into bloom through March, followed by cherries in early April, with the blooms starting first in Oregon and the Tri-Cities, then going up through Yakima and to Wenatchee later, Kovis said.

Apricots started blooming in the Lower Valley last week, said Gilbert and Ric Valicoff, who grows apricots in the Lower Valley.

“It looks like a good bloom,” Valicoff said. “The bloom’s over now, and the bees are working good (to pollinate the fruit).”

Gilbert said his apricots are in bloom in Parker and he was expecting the West Valley orchards to follow suit this week, while cherries are expected in the first week of April. But he and Valicoff said they are keeping a close eye on the weather in case there is a cold snap.

In normal years, Yakima averages 43.2 degrees in March, according to the National Weather Service’s climate data.

In case temperatures drop to freezing levels, Gilbert said he has wind machines, which pull warmer air down into the orchards, as well as under-tree sprinklers to protect the buds from frost damage.

Valicoff said he recently installed a system that allows him and his workers to monitor temperature and wind machines through smartphones.

Another crop coming in around springtime is asparagus. Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission, said soil temperatures need to be at least 50 degrees before asparagus starts growing, with cutting starting between April 5-10.

He said the weather conditions appear to be signaling a normal start to the season, with reports of asparagus starting to grow near the Tri-Cities.

Norm Inaba, an asparagus grower in the Lower Valley, said he’s seen signs that his asparagus is starting to sprout, and he’s anticipating a normal harvesting season.

“Mother Nature dictates what happens,” Inaba said.

Schreiber, with the asparagus commission, said the hope is for Washington’s asparagus to hit the market at the time when Mexico’s cheaper asparagus stalks go out of season, just after Easter. He said the imported asparagus has been selling at 99 cents a pound, a price he described as “insanely cheap.”

But Schreiber said asparagus farmers are also concerned about the possibility of paying farmworkers overtime for working more than 40 hours. The state’s Supreme Court ruled in November that an overtime exemption for dairy workers was unconstitutional.

Washington’s Senate passed a bill this month that would remove the overtime exemption for other agricultural industries, but would phase overtime in, with time-and-a-half required if workers work longer than 55 hours a week in 2022, and dropping to 40 hours in 2024.

Schreiber said one Yakima County grower has told him that if they’re required to pay overtime, they will plow under half of their asparagus acreage to avoid the extra labor cost.

“Let’s say asparagus cutters at piece rate make $21, $22 per hour. If that’s what they’re making at hour 41, they’re making $31, $33 an hour,” Schreiber said. “We get paid the same amount for asparagus (cut) at hour 41 as we do before.”

He said hiring more workers to ensure asparagus cutting doesn’t take more than 40 hours a week is not a viable solution. For one thing, there are not as many workers, Schreiber said, since asparagus cutting is considered skilled farm labor, and most workers would not be content with working a mere 40 hours and not getting the extra money they now get.

Valicoff agreed, noting there are workers who would rather stick with the current system than have their earnings limited by being limited to 40 hours a week. He said the overtime proposal also raises the question of whether a worker who is working for two ranches with separate employer identification numbers in the same pay period would have to be paid overtime if the combined hours go past 40 a week.

Another concern is the pandemic. Gilbert said his company is pushing to get its workers vaccinated, while Valicoff said all his employees are being vaccinated, in addition to the social distancing and other rules he implemented to reduce the potential spread of the virus among his workforce.

“We don’t want people working for us ill,” Valicoff said. “No. 1 is the safety of our people. We want to make sure they are in good health.”

Washington state has found more than 600 closely watched coronavirus variants

Laboratories in Washington state have identified more than 600 cases of COVID-19 caused by coronavirus variants that state and federal officials are tracking closely, according to a report released last week by the Washington Department of Health.

Through genomic sequencing, the state has identified 592 cases involving one of five “variants of concern,” which have characteristics that scientists believe could allow them to spread more easily, cause more harm or reduce the effectiveness of vaccination or treatment, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state also documented 13 cases involving one of three “variants of interest,” which are under further investigation by researchers.

“All the variants of concern have arrived in Washington state and are rising in many parts of the state,” said Pavitra Roychoudhury, a computational biologist with UW Medicine. “I think this underscores the importance of doing genomic sequencing in a regular fashion. It’s preparing us for what might come through the population.”

The state has ramped up genomic sequencing of the novel coronavirus and is working with several labs to search for new variants and identify trends. If a more contagious or more deadly variant takes off, and the state’s vaccination campaign can’t head off its momentum, some researchers are concerned it could lead to a fourth wave of disease. Understanding which variants are dominant could drive policy decisions and reopening plans.

Sequencing helps officials know “how the virus is evolving and get out in front of it,” said Kelly Wroblewski, director of infectious disease for the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “You can adjust your public health messaging or public health interventions.”

The United States was behind countries like the United Kingdom, which identified late last year one of the first worrisome variants, in investing in genomic sequencing.

Over the last four months in the U.S., “we’ve closed the gap significantly,” Wroblewski said, adding that Washington is one of the states now “leading the way.”

Last month, more than 6% of coronavirus cases confirmed through molecular testing were sequenced, according to the state report.

The B.1.1.7 variant, which was first identified in the U.K. and is believed by scientists to be about 50% more infectious, has made the largest splash nationally. It has grown steadily in prevalence since the beginning of the year, according to national data from the CDC. Earlier this month, it represented just under 10% of new U.S. cases.

In Washington state, while B.1.1.7 continues to spread and has been detected in 152 cases, it has not yet become dominant, said State Epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist.

What has surprised Lindquist is the even more rapid proliferation of two variants that arose in California: B.1.427 and B.1.429. Both are considered concerning because they are more contagious and show some resistance to natural and vaccine-induced immunity.

So far, the two California variants have been detected in 422 cases in Washington.

In one of the research labs working with the state, 30% of all variants sequenced have been California varieties, Lindquist said.

Experts said it’s difficult to extrapolate from Washington’s data what proportion of all cases are due to variants because the data collection is not necessarily representative and the sample size is relatively small.

“It’s an easy thing to misinterpret and you have much better statistical power when you’re looking at that across the country nationally,” Wroblewski said.

New modeling from Dr. Joshua Schiffer and his colleagues at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center suggests that superspreader events will be key in allowing new variants to gain a toehold and then take over.

Their work, which has not yet been peer reviewed, found that most new variants die out quickly. But those that are disseminated early on to large numbers of people — as in the Skagit County choir practice that helped spread the virus in Washington and the Boston biotech conference in February 2020 that is partly blamed for the initial outbreak on the East Coast — are the ones that thrive.

It’s not clear yet whether that’s happening with variants in Washington, according to Lindquist. “I do believe superspread events will be an issue,” he said. “We just have not seen enough genotyping results yet to see any clear results.”

That underscores the importance of masking and avoiding the types of situations that present the virus with an abundance of targets, Schiffer said.

“The public health message is more of the same. The really high-risk environments are crowded, indoor events. If we can avoid those and mask effectively, that is going to be key to prevent these variants from winning the race with the virus.”

The state is also keeping an eye on breakthrough cases, when someone tests positive for the novel coronavirus after completing their vaccination regimen.

Vaccines are not 100% effective, and some rare breakthrough cases are to be expected.

Samaritan Healthcare in Moses Lake reported two breakthrough cases earlier this month, according to Gretchen Youngren, a spokesperson for the organization.

Youngren said one fully vaccinated employee received routine testing following an outbreak among staffers who had yet to accept the vaccine. The employee, who was asymptomatic, tested positive also. Another employee received routine testing after reporting symptoms associated with allergies. Both took 10 days off for mandatory isolation but have returned to work.

Dr. Michael Kalnoski of Atlas Genomics, a company that performs laboratory testing for King County, said his lab had returned five positive test results for people who had indicated to the county that they were fully vaccinated.

“After you get your second vaccine shot and you wait two weeks, it’s not your get-out-of-jail-free card and that you’re immune,” Kalnoski said.

At a briefing Thursday, Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah said the state is analyzing possible breakthrough infections but is still vetting the circumstances to be sure the cases meet the CDC’s definition: COVID-19 that strikes people at least two weeks after they have been fully vaccinated.

Health officials plan to monitor for any evidence they are related to new variants that may be more resistant to immunity, Lindquist said.

“We’re working with every local health jurisdiction to identify any epidemiology that would point to things like: Is it more common with a certain vaccine, more common with a certain lot? Was it storage issues? Anything that would show us trends,” he said.

Derek Chauvin trial represents a defining moment in America's racial history

MINNEAPOLIS — George Floyd pleading for his life under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer has become a defining moment of our time.

What began 10 months ago at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue has transformed into nothing less than an American reckoning on justice, racial equity, the proper role of law enforcement and the historical wrongs society has perpetrated on Black people.

Monday morning, that moment leads to the 18th-floor courtroom of the Hennepin County Government Center, where a jury will begin to hear a murder and manslaughter case against since-fired police officer Derek Chauvin.

The trial itself is about what happened that May evening, but it will also be a vessel into which a splintered society places its rage, anxieties and hopes. Like the trial after Rodney King’s beating, like the trial after Emmett Till’s murder, like the Scottsboro Boys’ trial, this case will be viewed as another chapter — perhaps a turning point — in America’s racial history.

“Everything is riding on the outcome of the trial,” said Keith Mayes, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of African American and African Studies. “Yes, Chauvin is on trial, and it’s about the Floyd murder. … But an argument can be made it’s about all the other folks that didn’t receive justice, too. That’s why a conviction is necessary for us to reimagine what a future can look like, because these cases continue to happen until the police are thoroughly reformed.”

Still, while some look at Chauvin as emblematic of law enforcement as an institution that’s misguided at best or racist at worst, others see what happened last Memorial Day as an anomaly: that Floyd’s death was the rare exception instead of proof that police are the bad guys.

“I try in my head to better understand that broad-brush mentality, but I have a hard time,” said Tim Leslie, the Dakota County, Minn., sheriff. “If a plumber gets arrested for DUI, are all plumbers drunks? If a pilot crashes a plane, are all pilots incompetent? No. Yet Chauvin does that, he murders somebody, and all law enforcement needs to be reformed. Is that the same?”

History on video

When Mayes saw the Floyd video, the 53-year-old professor had a visceral reaction: What if that were me?

“You almost see yourself lying on the ground with the police officer’s knee on your own neck,” Mayes said. “You can’t help but … be engulfed in this kind of anger and rage and disappointment in the system that continues to allow this to happen.”

Growing up in Harlem, Mayes had two distinct types of interactions with police: one with housing police, who were familiar and respectful, and the other with city police, who were feared. Decades later, even as an author with an Ivy League degree, those feelings linger.

After Floyd’s death, Mayes joined protests and paid respects at 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis. That’s how he processed it: by sharing his grief with the grief of the community. He thought about George Floyd, but he also thought about Philando Castile, and Jamar Clark, and Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant killed by New York police while Mayes lived in New York.

“I put this incident along this spectrum of other incidents,” he said, “where police either assaulted or killed Black people. And they just get stacked up.”

Heroes or villains

For police officers, the national debate about where the profession falls short has often felt jarring and unfair.

“We’ve disappointed some of our constituency — that’s the bottom line,” said Leslie, the sheriff in Dakota County. “We have to take a look in the mirror and figure that out.”

The past year has been an emotional whirlwind for police. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, they were painted as heroes; after Floyd died, they were painted as villains.

Leslie has tried to think deeply about the issues Floyd’s death brought up. He’s read books such as “How to Be an Antiracist” and “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man.” He’s hired a community outreach and equity coordinator, and he’s focused more on deputies’ mental health.

But Leslie has been in law enforcement for four decades. He knows innumerable police officers who went into the field for honorable reasons. He knows policing is an emotional profession to begin with: seeing dead bodies, dealing with people in crisis, always remaining on edge. The past year has made it more so.

“We’re in a really tough spot right now,” he said. “We’re supposed to deal with people with mental illness, chemical addiction, all sorts of family drama, poverty, undereducated. These are not police problems. These are social problems. We’re trying to be everything for everyone, and I’m not sure we’re able to do that without disappointing some people sometimes.”

Global impact

Chauvin’s knee became a symbol of Black oppression worldwide: in Australia and Japan, in France and Germany, in Kazakhstan and Indonesia.

The case “has really become a global indictment of police forces,” said Brenda Stevenson, a professor of history and African American studies at UCLA. “This is now representative of what happens everywhere — at least, that’s what many people believe. … People are really watching to see if the U.S. can get it right this time.”

Thabi Myeni, a 23-year-old law student in Johannesburg, South Africa, had been to plenty of protests before last spring — mostly over racial equity in tuition fees.

When Myeni saw the video of Floyd’s death, she thought it would be another example of racial injustice going unnoticed. “I had no idea it would spark a global movement,” she said.

What changed for her was when South Africa’s ruling party decried Floyd’s killing as a “heinous murder.” It struck Myeni as hypocrisy. While Americans protested Floyd’s death, South Africans were protesting the death of a man named Collins Khosa. Khosa lived in Johannesburg’s poor Alexandria township, and he was beaten to death by soldiers who said Khosa had been drinking alcohol in public, a violation of COVID-19 lockdown rules.

After Floyd’s death, Myeni organized a march to Parliament. Racial justice protests were sweeping more than 60 countries around the world, but in South Africa, they felt especially resonant. It has been nearly three decades since apartheid ended, and yet institutionalized segregation still has a long tail in South Africa. It was, she thought, no different from America’s legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

“These things are transnational in nature, the global nature of Black oppression,” she said. “I think of America as I think of South Africa, where the government — the people of power, the people of privilege — don’t want to acknowledge racism still exists.”

Policing questions

For some, Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck told a story of America’s history of racism. Calls for an overhaul of policing — to defund or even abolish police — also functioned as calls to disrupt America’s power structures.

The reason Floyd’s death had more impact than other instances of police violence is simple, said James Mulvaney, a law enforcement professor who worked in New York’s Division of Human Rights. Technology made Floyd’s death immediate, graphic and personal.

“We’re no longer viewing these things through a telescope — we’re witnessing them in our living rooms,” Mulvaney said. “America watched George Floyd die at our house.”

In the months since, police reform has become a heated topic in Minnesota and around the country.

Brendan Cox, the former Albany, N.Y., police chief who now works as director of policing strategies at the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion National Support Bureau, believes the message needs to be that the system cannot be fixed by police alone.

“If the community does not trust us not only as individuals but as a system, then we really can’t do our job,” he said.

Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City who has written extensively about police training, has been frustrated with the national conversation about policing after Floyd’s death. Too much has been driven by loud voices instead of insightful ones, she said. The better discussion, she believes, should have been about centralizing America’s police system. Each state having a single police force would help funding and streamline training.

Chauvin “is a classic example of someone who should not be on the job, who was poorly trained,” Haberfeld said. “I didn’t see all the unrest (Floyd’s death) would trigger, but in a way to me I was waiting for something of that nature. I’ve been writing about this for 20 years. And nobody’s been listening.”

The cataclysmic national moment that began 10 months ago at the corner of 38th and Chicago will not come to a tidy end at the conclusion of Chauvin’s trial. The three other officers at the scene are scheduled to be tried in August, and Floyd’s death is certain to reverberate much longer than that.

But Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of the civil rights icon, said he believes the impact of this trial cannot be overstated. An acquittal would mean our criminal justice system must be rethought, he said.

“It may set a tone for how people perceive whether justice can be achieved, specifically for Black people,” King said. “Nothing brings this young man’s life back. … But his legacy can be that his tragic death mobilized people all over the nation and the world so that we don’t go backward, but we as a world community go forward in terms of addressing racial issues.”

Newhouse renews plea for cold case task office in Yakima focused on missing and murdered Indigenous women
  • Updated

A lawmaker from the Yakima Valley has renewed his plea for a federal cold case task force office in Central Washington focused on missing and murdered Indigenous women.

On Dec. 8, U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr and U.S. Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt requesting a cold case task force office for missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives be established in Yakima through Operation Lady Justice.

Newhouse recently sent another letter, to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland, to ask for their continued support in addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, according to a Wednesday news release. Native women have faced disproportionate rates of murder and violence for decades.

He also renewed his request for a cold case task force office in Yakima, saying it’s needed now more than ever. Native Americans represent 1.9% of the state’s population, according to 2019 population estimates by the U.S. Census, but account for 6% of Washington’s active missing persons cases.

“The actual number of missing Native Americans is likely much higher, as Native persons are often inaccurately reported or listed as white in law enforcement databases,” said a March 10 Washington State Patrol tribal liaison update, which cited the population statistics.

Dawn Pullin, a Spokane Tribe of Indians citizen, is the tribal liaison for Eastern Washington. Patti Gosch concentrates on the west side of the state.

Their update on the State Patrol’s blog, InsideOut, includes a link to the agency’s list of active cases of missing Indigenous people. It’s the first time the State Patrol has released a list of names and includes the missing person’s current age, date missing, reporting agency, case number and contact number.

Newhouse’s congressional district is home to the Colville Tribes and the Yakama Nation, two of the 29 federally recognized tribes in Washington. Dozens of women and men have gone missing, have been found murdered or have died mysteriously on and around the 1.3 million-acre Yakama reservation, which is in Yakima County and northern Klickitat County. Many cases are unsolved.

“There are currently 32 open cases of MMIW on or near the Yakama Nation reservation alone. Despite these sad and staggering numbers in our community, the closest Cold Case Task Force Office is currently located in Billings, Montana,” Newhouse wrote in his recent letter.

The cold case task force offices — staffed by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Interior Department and special agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs — delve into past cases of MMIW and violent crimes on and around tribal lands.

Establishing one in Yakima would be a tremendous step forward, Newhouse wrote. He hopes the Cold Case Task Force, Operation Lady Justice and the work to address this crisis will remain a top priority for the Biden administration.

“We must continue working to ensure Native American women will no longer face violent crimes that go uninvestigated or unsolved, and that work must begin in the communities most affected,” he said.