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October 2005, Volume 11, Number 4

Northwest, Midwest

Washington. Southwest Washington berry growers complained of labor shortages in summer 2005, reporting that even when they offered housing to seasonal workers, some left for higher wages with growers who did not provide housing. Strawberry growers complained that their workers were not "loyal" because they left rather than repick fields for the second and third times, when yields and thus piece rate earnings are lower. Workers who can earn more picking cherries do not thin apples, which leads to complaints from apple growers.

There appear to be many reasons why some farmers report labor shortages. With the Mexico-US border harder to cross, some workers are staying in the US longer, which may enable them to more quickly find higher wage nonfarm jobs, as in construction. Some growers are responding by building or improving worker housing to attract workers, stepping up efforts to recruit local workers, and providing more continuous work by changing their crop mix.

Red Delicious apples were 75 percent of the Washington crop in the 1980s but only 35 percent in 2005, often replaced by the Fuji and Gala varieties. Most apples in the Yakima and Wenatchee valleys are harvested in September and October, and then held in controlled-atmosphere storage units that have high humidity and low oxygen levels to retard aging. Apples that go into storage must be picked before all their starches turn to sugar, but it is hard to find the optimum picking point because red delicious apples develop a full red color several weeks before they are "ripe." Apples ripen from outside to inside, and most farmers harvest all apples at once, further complicating the optimum picking date.

Oregon. Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman is one of the largest US dairies, with 8,500 Jersey and 7,500 Holstein cows plus 25,000 heifers and calves. Most of the milk is sold to Tillamook County Creamery Association. The farm also grows forage, for the cows, and potatoes on its 93,000 acres, including 35,000 irrigated acres.

There are 300 full-time and 350 seasonal workers, 90 percent immigrants from Mexico; the company puts the payroll at $10 million a year. Blue Mountain Community College (Pendleton) provides on-site language instruction at the farm, with workers paid to participate--supervisors learn Spanish and workers learn English.

Some of Threemile Canyon's workers have been complaining with the support of the UFW about working conditions. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health announced in July 2005 that it would investigate workers' exposure to dangerous amounts of noxious gases. NIOSH receives about 400 requests a year to conduct health hazard investigations, but is not a regulatory agency empowered to enforce its recommendations.

In September 2005 Threemile settled a sex discrimination suit brought by five women, agreeing to announce job openings and to create a formal application procedure. Threemile will pay $83,000 to the six plaintiffs and pay their attorney $103,000. In a separate settlement in 2004, the dairy agreed to pay $70,000 to 17 employees who claimed minimum wage violations and unlawful payroll deductions.

Oregon's minimum wage is $7.25 and is indexed to rise with earnings. SB 1083A would give Oregon farmers tax credits they can use or sell to compensate them for increases in the minimum wage. About 10,000 Oregon farm workers are believed to be paid the minimum wage.

Colonia Libertad opened in August 2005 with 48 housing units in southeast Salem for workers employed on local farms, wineries, and nurseries. According to Oregon Housing and Community Services, some 1,115 farm worker housing units have been built since 1998, including three in Woodburn and another in Independence.

Midwest. Mexico opened its 46th consulate in the US in June 2005 in Minneapolis to serve the growing number of Mexicans in the area. Mexico's National Population Council projects that 400,000 Mexicans will migrate to the United States every year for the next decade, and that the flow should then decline gradually to an estimated 325,000 a year by 2050. Surveys of migrants in the US suggest that a third elude the Border Patrol on their first attempt, but 59 percent are in the US after five attempts; only eight percent give up and go home.

There were newspaper reports in July 2005 of northwestern Michigan sweet cherry growers having trouble recruiting workers because of stepped up enforcement of immigration laws, but authorities denied making enforcement sweeps. Some northwestern Michigan growers investigated bringing H-2A workers from Mexico for the 2005 harvest, but few apparently did.

Migrant workers used to travel from south Texas to the Red River Valley of North Dakota to weed beet fields between May and August, but chemicals have eliminated the need for them. In the 1970s, Clay county provided assistance to 1,000 migrant families a year; in 2004, the county assisted 30 families. Most of the remaining seasonal farm workers are settled local residents.

The McAllen Texas Monitor profiled some of the 30,000 migrants who move from South Texas to the Midwest on October 1, 2005. The Wautoma, Wisconsin area once attracted 4,000 migrants each summer, but now attracts only 1,000, including workers employed at a Del Monte cannery that pays $8.45 an hour and provides unemployment insurance in the off season.

Mateo Cadena, director of Wisconsin's Bureau of Migrant, Refugee and Labor Services, says that the state has some of the strictest laws aimed at protecting migrants. The Wautoma area's largest employer of migrants, Christmas tree grower Kirk Company, expects to close as consumers shift to artificial trees.

Some 250 migrant workers harvest about 3,000 acres of sweet corn in southwestern Colorado. Growers apparently used H-2A workers in 2005 and tried to house them in a mostly vacant 72-bed migrant-housing complex near Olathe that is off limits to H-2A workers.

Nancy Lofholm, "Bumpy route to bumper crop," Denver Post, August 12, 2005. Cookson Beecher, "Uncertain labor market, shortages increase some growers' worries," Capital Press, July 22, 2005 .