Asparagus growers face labor shortage

One of the asparagus fields harvested Tuesday is on Wellner Road, near Snow and Sons Produce.

SUNNYSIDE — The introduction of international competition back in the 1990s just about killed Washington State’s asparagus industry.

Kinsey Farms weathered that storm.

A new challenge is brewing, and this one could cause growers like Kinsey Farms to cut back or get out. Speaking about the start of the asparagus season on Tuesday, April 10, Mark Kinsey said there may not be enough cutters to meet the harvest demand.

The Kinsey family started its asparagus operation back at a time when kids would work before school. Mark, Greg and their siblings were out there too.

“We were all cutting in those days,” he said. “Now, kids can’t work.”

The cutting must be done by adults now, but there aren’t many available for the 60-day to 75-day season. Most farmworkers, especially those who have settled out of the migrant stream, have full-time, full-year employment now.

In addition, many of the farm workers who migrate here are not free agents. They come here under contact with specific growers and specific work.

“We have several families that come back each year,” Kinsey said. “But they may not be enough.”

Those families can handle the harvest for now, but when peak production comes, in a matter of a week or two, Kinsey fears he may not find the additional cutters he will need.

Tony Ramirez, owner-operator of Sure Harvest, a labor contracting business based in Grandview, pretty much about ignores asparagus because of the labor situation. There is not enough asparagus, or cutters, for him.

Ramirez operates mostly from June into November, from the start of cherries to the end of apples. He contracts for 100-150 hands, depending on the ups and downs of demand.

Ramirez said there is a labor shortage concern as cherries start to ripen. Many people who pick here are coming from the earlier cherry harvest in California.

“If the crop is good down there, they might stay there longer,” he said.

Ramirez said the shortage of labor in recent years does not affect some of the biggest fruit-growing companies. They guarantee themselves a good harvest by contracting people, mostly from Mexico, through the federal government’s H2A temporary visa program. Some of those people start with asparagus, in the Mattawa area, and work through apple harvest.

While H2A guarantees the needed work force, it’s not easy on the growers They pay a higher wage than most growers, they pay for transportation between Mexico and the U.S. and to and from work every day.

Growers must also pay for housing, and it has to meet U.S. housing standards.

Some growers are putting in new housing that is dedicated to H2A workers. Some is constructed by governmental organizations. The Yakima Housing Authority is building a 96-bed unit on Cherry Hill in Granger.

Projects like this one make it possible for smaller operators to contract H2A workers.

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