Oregon Farm Labor Shortage

OREGONLIVE.COM – Oregon’s long winter has given way to a springtime of fear in farm country, with farmers and orchardists bracing for a widespread immigration crackdown that could worsen an already chronic labor shortage in the state’s $5.4 billion agricultural economy.

Providers of fruits and vegetables, nursery stock, produce, and meat products say the skilled workers who put food on our tables and plants in our yards can’t easily be replaced. Their speed, dexterity, and crop knowledge of crops, as well as their willingness to work long hours and unpredictable schedules in isolated areas makes them vital to the industry.

The Trump administration’s vows of aggressive enforcement against undocumented workers — many of whom are longtime residents of the state — and the companies that employ them could create chaos from farm to market and all points in between, industry leaders say.

“It’s a big deal for us,” said Bill Sweat, co-owner of Winderlea Vineyard & Winery in Dundee who has served on the Oregon Wine Board and as board president of the Oregon Winegrowers Association. On a 1 to 10 scale, he said, he’d put worry about an enforcement-induced labor shortage “at about an 8.”

Their fears are so great that some in the industry refuse to discuss the issue on the record, fearing that they could become a target of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, said he’s urged his members not to talk to the media about the issue as he and others work for a solution.

Oregon’s agricultural sector raises everything from cattle to Christmas trees, and employs approximately 87,000 workers, said Dallas Fridley, regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department. Though Findlay said he had no way of knowing how many of them were undocumented, a Pew Research Center analysis of federal data estimates that immigrants accounted for one-third of all agricultural employment in 2014. Of that pool, just over half are undocumented, the report estimates.

Recent actions stir fears

Growers and workers alike say that enforcement actions in farming regions were rare until recently, when a series of ICE raids created fears about what might lie ahead during the growing season.

On Valentine’s Day, the agency detained Roman Zaragoza-Sanchez, a married father of five with no criminal record from Sandy. The agency told The Oregonian/OregonLive that Zaragoza was undocumented and had “an outstanding order of removal” issued against him. He remains in ICE custody pending deportation to Mexico.

Ten days later, ICE detained at least 10 workers during a raid near Woodburn. Several were released, but four have cases before the immigration courts and are undergoing removal proceedings, ICE said.

President Donald Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order states that ICE will not exempt classes or categories of undocumented immigrants from potential enforcement. Worker advocates say that’s a departure from past practice of prioritizing enforcement against those who pose the greatest risk to public safety.

Tim Bernasek, a Portland agricultural employment attorney who is legal counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau, said growers don’t know what to expect in light of those cases.

“It’s already such a tenuous situation that this is just one more log on the fire of a problem that’s already burning,” said Bernasek, of the Dunn, Carney law firm. “It’s so difficult to get a workforce.”

Growers say that even the fear of immigration raids could keep workers away during the narrow harvest window of such weather-sensitive crops as marionberries, pears, and wine grapes. Some who have tried to hire non-immigrant workers say they’ve had little success in attracting and keeping those employees.

“There are not a lot of people looking for work – legal or illegal,” said Ken Bailey, a fourth-generation cherry grower at Orchard View Farms in The Dalles who hires hundreds of workers each harvest season.  “If you take the illegals out there are not going to be enough.”

Oregon unemployment is at a record low, sliding to 4 percent in February. That’s the state’s best showing since at least 1976.

Searching for options

Some fruit growers are looking into a little-used visa program as a possible source of workers during the harvest season, Bailey said. The H-2a visa for temporary agricultural works is difficult for employers to secure, as they must demonstrate that there aren’t enough U.S. workers “who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work.”  It also is based on the assumption of a steady, regular work flow that doesn’t exist in many harvest situations.

Oregon farm facts
Key numbers about Oregon’s agricultural industry, based on 2015 data:
Total workforce: 87,137
Year-round workers: 25,812
Employees who work only one quarter: 35,909
Q3 2015 workforce: 61,878
Annual crop value: $5.4 billion
Number of farms: 34,600
Total Oregon farmland: 16.4 million acres
Average farm size: 474 acres
Sources: Oregon Employment Department, Oregon Department of Agriculture

Additionally, workers can use the visas with only one company, a restriction stymies those who want to move from one harvest to another.

The H-2a “is not very efficient,” Bailey said. “It’s not a good business model.” But growers are looking for anything that might work if an immigration crackdown decimates the agricultural workforce, he said.

Growers and workers agree that the looming crisis has its roots in the nation’s failure to adopt a comprehensive immigration policy that welcomes foreign workers, who are vital to agriculture and some service industries.  President Ronald Reagan approved an amnesty program 30 years ago that put millions of undocumented workers on a path toward citizenship. Since then, however, Congress has failed to create a policy that resolves the status of the nation’s estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants.

Employers say the state’s farm labor is increasingly made up of longtime undocumented immigrants. Many have families here, including U.S.-born children.

In a report released in February, economist Josh Lehner of Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis notes that some 150,000 Oregon residents were born in Mexico. About two-thirds of them migrated to the state in the 1990s and 2000s, with fewer than 10,000 arriving after 2009, according to Lehner’s analysis.

Lehner’s report noted that 40 percent of the state’s foreign-born residents came from Mexico, and that a vast majority came to the U.S. a decade or two ago. About one-quarter of foreign-born Oregonians came from Asia, followed by countries in the Americas, Europe, and Africa.

The numbers highlight the potential humanitarian toll a widespread crackdown would create: Many undocumented workers now have children who were born and raised here. And, some are married to U.S. citizens.

Worker advocates have been urging undocumented residents to prepare for possible arrest and deportation by learning their rights, applying for citizenship if eligible, and getting their financial and family issues in order.

Ramon Ramirez, president of the 6,500-member PCUN farmworkers union, said the Woodburn-area raid in February “created a shock wave” in local immigrant and agriculture communities.

“We haven’t seen anything like this in maybe 30 years,” he said of the local raid and others. “If the raids continue, we won’t have any farmworkers to pick the crops.”

It’s that worry that is prompting collaboration between growers and workers’ organizations on finding short-term and long-term solutions to a problem that has spanned generations, said Stone, of the nurseries association. Stone said he and other industry leaders will work to bring their concerns to members of Oregon’s political delegation.

Stone said he understands long-standing public concerns about immigration that are reflected in Trump’s attacks on undocumented workers.

“The president is not wrong that the immigration system is broken, and the American people are not wrong to be frustrated that the system is broken, ” said Stone, who was an aide to Oregon Republican Sen. Bob Packwood when the Reagan amnesty program took effect.

Both political parties are partly to blame for the nation’s failure to come up with a policy that works for workers and employers, and both now need to be part of the solution, he said.

“We can talk about (building) walls, but adults are going to have to get in the room and solve the problem,” Stone said. “Folks want to do the right thing.”

Gordon Oliver, Special to The Oregonian/OregonLive

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