YAKIMA, Wash. -- Brad Carpenter is in the middle of hop harvest and, unlike previous years, isn’t running short of labor.
He just finished picking his crop of Gala apples and is comfortably harvesting about 45 acres of hops each 12-hour shift with 300 workers in Lower Valley fields.
“We seem to have a pretty good crew this year,” he said. “Prior to hop harvest, we had quite a few people sign up — we’re doing pretty well.”
The positive outlook comes after years of worry over a dwindling labor pool fostered by an aging resident workforce, steep declines in immigration from Mexico and tighter border security.
An increasing reliance on H-2A guest workers appears to be bringing relief to growers, including those who aren’t tapping the guest-worker program. An estimated 22,000 guest workers are expected in fields and orchards across the state this year, up from about 18,000 last year. The ranks have steadily grown since 2009, when about 3,000 guest workers came to the state.
“It just seems like the addition of H-2A workers to the area has freed up some local workers to go to other ranches, so that’s a good thing,” said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers league. “It’s saving our bacon.”
But Gempler warns people not to get too giddy because it’s too early to tell just how everyone is faring this year.
“It’s dangerous to extrapolate on just a couple of anecdotes, but I have not heard as many complaints about not having enough people, or farmers freaking out, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” he said.
Quantifying whether farm labor needs are adequately met is difficult because there isn’t a way to effectively track it until the end of harvests; crops and needs vary year to year, he said.
“It seems like the amount of concern is less this year, but we’ll find out in a couple of months who had to let (fruit) hang,” he said.
Not everyone has embraced the guest-worker program, though they may benefit from the relief it brings to the local labor force. Under the program, growers are required to provide guest workers with temporary housing, transportation and slightly higher wages than the state minimum of $11.50 per hour. The higher wages are intended to discourage employers from overlooking the local labor force.
Those costs could add up to a few hundred or thousands of dollars per worker. Growers have estimated the cost of building new farm worker housing at about $15,000 per bed.
Like Carpenter, grower Mike Saunders doesn’t use the guest-worker program but is averaging anywhere from 150 to 200 workers this year. He, too, just finished up harvesting Galas and is ramping up to pick about 500 acres of Red Delicious.
Saunders relies largely on resident workers but also has workers from California and Oregon who come through the area each year. The trick, he said, is to provide them enough work between gaps in different harvests.
“I think people are still coming up this way — hopefully we’ll still be gleaning the same folks we have over the past few years,” he said. “We have them now; we’ve got to hold on to them. That’s the thing you’ve always got to work on.”
Meanwhile, other larger growers have opted to supplement their labor force with guest workers. Some growers are even going so far as nearly hiring guest workers exclusively.
Guest workers make up about 98 percent of apple grower Rob Vallicoff’s 220 employees this year. He bought the FairBridge Inn and Suites on North First Street in Yakima to house them as well as guest workers for other farmers. He likes the stability the program offers.
The guest-worker program guarantees labor by assigning a number of workers to a grower for an agreed amount of time beforehand.
“I think the bigger growers have to rely on H-2A,” he said. “You can’t run a business waiting around for workers to show up.”
Vallicoff said he’s about halfway through picking all his varieties of apples, and won’t need as many workers through the remaining harvest, which he estimates being complete about the first week of November.
“So now we might send a few home,” he said. “Our program worked perfectly.”