Robots could help with labor needs

Discussions coming up at annual conference
February 4, 2009 6:05:13 PM PST
High-tech robots that could prune trees or pick fruit are often discussed at the annual meetings of Washington's tree fruit growers, along with other proposals for reducing the need for farm workers.Labor issues will again be the overarching theme of the tree fruit growers' annual meeting Monday, which is being held in Wenatchee. Participants will talk about technology, farm worker housing, and a federal guestworker program.

"In the last five to 10 years, we are truly at a critical juncture for the tree fruit industry, and it is at a number of levels," said Jim Hazen, executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association. "It's all about labor supply and the issues associated with supply - productivity, efficiency and cost."

An immigration crackdown and the availability of better jobs for farm workers are largely blamed for a labor shortage in the fields. State labor officials documented dozens of unfilled agricultural jobs across the state in this year alone.

As a result, more growers have turned to a federal program to get farm workers from other countries. Under the so-called H2A program, growers can import foreign farm workers if they can show the local labor force is inadequate.

Three years ago, only a couple of farmers used the program to bring in workers. This year, 21 growers filed applications for workers.

"We feel exposed," said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League. "There's uncertainty in how we're going to secure a legal work force, and that's the problem everybody is examining."

McDougall and Sons Inc., a family-owned tree fruit operation based in Wenatchee, completed the paperwork this year to bring in 20 farmworkers from outside the United States, but then didn't have the required housing for them when it was promised to local workers.

The company now is putting in manufactured homes to create 114 new beds for farm workers, at a cost of about $1 million, and plans to apply to bring in up to 60 farm workers next year, said Brent Milne, assistant manager of the company's apple, pear and cherry orchards.

Milne put together an "H2A survival guide" program for growers attending the convention that will examine the costs of the program and requirements for growers, as well as potential legal hurdles.

"While we weren't ultimately successful, I'd say we were close enough to get a bird's-eye view of what's going to be required with the program," he said.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., also will address the status of immigration reform bills in Congress, where they have stalled for months. In the meantime, several proposals have been floated to streamline the H2A process for farmers, a move Hastings supports.

Among them: Agricultural employers would no longer be required to place ads for available jobs with print and broadcast media outside of where they plan to use the workers.

Advocates for farm workers say the change violates federal law requiring employers to look for U.S. workers before importing foreign workers.

Farmers need more flexibility to use the H2A program, Hastings said.

"Part of the issue is timing. When you need workers, you need them right now. You don't have the luxury of waiting a week or 10 days when the fruit is ripe," he said.

Hastings also said administrative changes to the H2A program are imperative given the likelihood that immigration reform will flounder in an election year.

"Really, none of the presidential campaigns have taken this issue on this year, at least with a solution," he said.

Labor problems tend to be cyclical for Washington farmers. A short labor supply was the primary push toward creating the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission in the 1960s.

According to the state Employment Security Department, 1,240 certified H2A workers labored in Washington fields and orchards this year.

"That is an exponential increase over all previous years, and yet it's just a sliver of what the industry really requires to do the seasonal work," Hazen said.