Farming in Washington today remains a strong and much valued part of our community. Ancestors of today’s tribal members grew and harvested camas bulbs and other staples. American and European immigrants settled here, cleared farmland and imported their productive farming legacy.
Tomorrow, farming as we know it may be gone, captured in a few museum exhibits.
It’s not because of poor land, a lack of water, or inability of farmers to adapt to changing market conditions. It’s not even because of climate change. The single most important reason for the decline and possible end of most farming is the policies of our state government and court decisions that reflect today’s progressive politics.
Two issues have been playing out in this legislative session that illustrate the threat that politics plays in the future of our farms. One is how farmworkers should be paid and the other is who will control and have access to water.
In November 2020 the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the 1959 state law exempting dairy farm workers from being paid overtime was unconstitutional. Many other workers continue to be exempt. Dairy farmers immediately complied, but farmworkers were devastated. Farmworkers in our state are already paid more than any other state. Estimates of average range from $16 to $19 per hour. Most workers asked to work more than 40 hours and often that is necessary given the seasonal and changing nature of farm work. After the ruling, many workers were told they could no longer work more than 40 hours. To maintain their pay they had to take second jobs.
To hear what farmworkers themselves have to say about this, go to www.protectfarmworkersnow.org.
The day the court ruling came out, the lawsuits from class action lawyers started. There were nearly 40 suits from lawyers as far away as Los Angeles who claim farm employees are owed three years retroactive pay. Never mind that the cost of this would have put almost all farms out of business. Never mind that farmers were paying according to the 61 year old law.
The legislature jumped in, first to try to protect farms. But that goal was hijacked by Senator Saldaña, a senate leader from downtown Seattle. Her amendment demanded that all farms, not just dairies, pay all their workers three years back pay plus 12% interest. This would destroy most of the 100,000 farm jobs across the state.
Labor unions all clambered for the back pay despite the devastation it would cause to workers they say they are helping. Farm advocates including Save Family Farming and its affiliates across the state rallied and let voters and legislators know that farmworkers would be harmed. At this writing, the retroactive pay requirements have been removed but mandatory overtime pay for all farmworkers will be required.
The harm to farmworkers will be great. The only way farmers can survive this kind of continuing effort to raise the already very high cost of labor is to mechanize even more. Robotic milkers are being installed and robotic apple pickers are on the way. Farmworker jobs will be lost and the move to ever larger farms will be even faster.
Farmers and farm leaders continually ask why our state’s leaders have turned against them. Major media outlets are fixated on political perspectives that don’t support farmers. Anti-farm activists, though few in number, have an outsized impact on the administration, agencies and lawmakers. For example, Governor Inslee turned to a leader of a discredited California union to write the rules for farmworker safety during the pandemic.
Save Family Farming was formed over six years ago to bring public attention to the grave threats facing the future of our farms. There is but one hope. Citizens and voters who care about our farms and local food must band together and communicate with our lawmakers and elected officials as never before. Local representatives voting against farms such in the adjudication issue must answer to the voters. Without voter help, the future of farms in our community is fixed. With it, there is still hope.