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Farm groups to renew push for stable work force

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YAKIMA — Farmers who grow labor-intensive tree fruit crops must continue to be vocal about the need for comprehensive immigration reform to ensure agriculture is included in any solution for the nation’s broken immigration system, several farm groups told Washington state growers at a conference Tuesday.

Bottom line: If growers can’t prune, pick, pack and process their fruit, little else matters, said U.S. Apple Association President Nancy Foster.

The status quo is untenable,” she told about 100 growers at the Washington state Horticultural Association’s annual meeting.

More than 1 million people labor in U.S. orchards and fields across the country each year, and in Washington state, agriculture employs about 160,000 people. Thousands are estimated to be in the country illegally, and many farmers say the U.S. crackdown on illegal immigrants has resulted in labor shortages.

Some critics argue that growers would have enough workers if they paid more. Among the 50 states, Washington has the highest minimum wage at $9.04 per hour. Harvest workers are often paid based on how much they pick, but they’re guaranteed at least minimum wage.

Farmers are as close to seeing meaningful immigration reform as they’ve been in the past decade, said Jon Wyss, who handles labor issues for Gebbers Farms, a large grower in Brewster that fired hundreds of workers after it was subject to a federal immigration audit three years ago.

However, a growing number of farmers have turned to a federal guest-worker program to bring in foreign workers, despite longstanding complaints that it’s too cumbersome and expensive to be of any real help. Growers in the program generally must pay a higher wage, plus provide housing and transportation in and out of the country.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has pushed the federal government to enact immigration reform that includes a viable guest-worker program, border protection and a path to citizenship for illegal workers.

Farmers are as close to seeing meaningful immigration reform as they’ve been in the past decade, said Jon Wyss, who handles labor issues for Gebbers Farms, a large grower in north-central Washington that fired hundreds of workers after it was subject to a federal immigration audit three years ago.