Frank Lyall has noticed plenty of help-wanted signs during the cherry harvest, which started last month.
For the Grandview-based farmer and Yakima County Farm Bureau president, it speaks to strong demand for seasonal agricultural employment.
“The general feeling is that it’s in short, if not insufficient, supply,” Lyall said.
While much of the recent conversation on immigration has focused on how the U.S. has handled and should handle border security, the Yakima Valley’s agricultural industry has continued to wait for an immigration policy that will provide a sufficient supply of legal foreign workers.
The number of agricultural jobs has increased in recent decades while migration from Mexico to the U.S. has decreased in recent years.
In the short term, local growers said they’ve managed, for the most part, to meet their labor needs. They’ve done so either by using the federal H-2A guest worker program or deploying a variety of strategies to keep workers longer.
Mother Nature has helped, too. A relatively cool June extended the cherry harvest window, which means workers have more time to pick the crop. A hotter month would have meant more workers picking during a shorter time.
Still, there are other crops to tend and harvest over the next few months.
“(I hope) it won’t get any worse,” Lyall said. “But I would expect farmers will be stretched for labor all the way through the fall.”
More turning to H-2A
Wapato-based grower Rob Valicoff brought in 20 workers when he first used the H-2A federal guest worker program in 2006. The program allows U.S. employers who meet specific requirements to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. to fill temporary agricultural jobs.
In January, Valicoff brought in 96 workers and will bring in another 100 in August. Foreign workers will make up the majority of Valicoff’s workforce this year.
There’s an upfront cost — he estimates spending $1,500 in paperwork and travel costs for each worker. He also must cover housing. Each worker brought in through H-2A must be paid a minimum of $15.03 an hour.
He estimates that he ends up spending probably $5 more an hour in labor than a grower who doesn’t use the H-2A program, but for him, having a guaranteed workforce makes the cost worth it in the end.
“If it weren’t for the guys that are spending the money to make (H-2A) work, we’d basically be bidding for the labor,” he said. “It would become so high it wouldn’t make sense to pick the crop.”
More growers, especially larger ones, are turning to the H-2A program. The state Employment Security Department has projected that about 30,000 workers will come to Washington state this year through H-2A, which would be a sizable increase from just 6,194 workers that growers requested in 2013.
However, the H-2A program is still cost-prohibitive for many growers, especially small ones, said Lyall, the Grandview grower and Yakima County Farm Bureau president.
“H-2A has been the province of the large agricultural companies,” said Lyall, who doesn’t use H-2A. “It’s expensive and heavily regulated. It works less well for smaller and medium-sized farmers.”
Lyall said growers who opt not to use H-2A must be willing to pay top dollar — cherry pickers this summer have seen piece rates of up to 24 cents a pound. A productive worker could receive more than $12 an hour, the state minimum wage.
Lyall said he tries to use his workers strategically over several months, having them do tasks for the different crops he grows in Grandview and Mattawa. He’ll have some workers pick cherries and others tend his apple crop.
“You try to spread out your work, so you’re not constantly hiring new people and letting people go when a task is completed,” he said.
It’s common for growers to let low-quality fruit go when there aren’t workers to pick it, Lyall said.
These various practices seem to be working, at least this year.
“I haven’t heard of any catastrophic result from a shortage of labor,” Lyall said.
Agricultural jobs in Yakima County continue to increase at a robust pace. In 2018, the latest year figures were available from the Quarterly Census of Employment Wages, Yakima County reported 32,340 agricultural jobs, a 20 percent increase from five years ago.
Meanwhile, the number of undocumented immigrants from Mexico has decreased in recent years. In 2017, there were 4.9 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. from Mexico, a sizable drop from 6.9 million about a decade ago, according to figures from the Pew Research Center.
In contrast, the number of undocumented immigrants from other countries has increased from 5.3 million in 2007 to 5.5 million in 2017.
The agricultural industry has advocated for comprehensive immigration reform, but with little to no progress made over the past 15 years, Lyall said he’s open to other solutions.
“I wouldn’t be averse to some piecemeal approach, just to get something moving,” he said.
In an emailed statement to the Yakima Herald-Republic, 4th District U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican, said he’s continuing to work to get support for an agricultural immigration reform bill.
“My staff and I have been working with my colleagues in the majority to bring an agriculture immigration reform bill to the House, and I think we are getting close,” he wrote. “We have been speaking with growers and House Judiciary Committee staff to come to a compromise that will improve the H-2A program for producers across the country and ensure farmers facing labor shortages, like those in Central Washington, have access to a reliable, legal workforce.”
Growers said while the border security issue doesn’t have a direct impact on their ability to find workers now, they believe resolving that issue is crucial for progress on immigration reform.
Both Lyall and Valicoff note that immigration policy in the mid-1980s — which led to amnesty for millions of undocumented immigrants — did not sufficiently address issues of border security, which has led to the gridlock over immigration today.
“It’s a huge (and) complex subject,” Lyall said. “I can assure you that farmers don’t (say,) ‘Well, labor is short, we need not enforce the border and let whoever come in and go work for us.’”