Two onion firms make jump from Malheur County to Idaho

By Pat Caldwell

The Enterprise

NYSSA – For Shay Myers, word of House Bill 2193 was the tipping point for his firm.

It also proved to be one of the key reasons why as general manager of Owyhee Produce he is now in the middle of moving his operation – consisting of storage buildings and a packing shed – to Idaho.

Myers and his company – an onion production, packing and shipping firm – encountered several challenges the past year.

An epic series of storms in January triggered several million dollars of damage as Owyhee Produce lost five buildings, including three in Nyssa.

Yet another challenge was the implementation of the state’s paid sick leave law in 2016, requiring employers to provide up to 40 hours of paid sick leave a year.

Then there was the contrast between how Oregon and Idaho view agriculture. Idaho always seemed to be more receptive to agriculture interests than Oregon, Myers said.

“I am in contact with the Idaho Department of Agriculture probably on a monthly, if not more, basis. We farm in both states but I have more interaction with Idaho in regards to agriculture then Oregon by ten or twenty fold,” Myers said.

But the final straw was HB 2193, now making its way through the Oregon Legislature.

House Bill 2193 requires large employers in specific industries to give new workers with a projected work schedule and two weeks’ notice regarding a work timetable. The proposed mandate would allow employees to decline hours not in the original schedule.

“The simple fact that it even made it to the House is enough to scare me away from Oregon,” Myers said.

Myers said that the agriculture industry is exempt in part but packing sheds aren’t. Nonetheless, he said, the principle of the legislation troubled him.

“The simple fact this bill is even being discussed and considered to punish the employer for acts of God is ludicrous,” he said.

The consequences of the new law are clear to Myers.

“So let’s say we are doing asparagus where we pick today and pack tomorrow. Let’s say it pours rain and I don’t get the produce and I can’t run the packing shed. I have 40 people scheduled to work and I owe all of those people for a day’s work because I couldn’t run my operation,” he said.

For Myers, enough was enough.

“I just don’t think it is right for an employer to be punished to employ his employees,” Myers said.

Still, the decision to move Owyhee Produce – which employs about 45 people on its packing line – to Idaho was not easy, Myers said.

“This will cost us. It will set us back several years by moving to the state. But the consistency in (Idaho) state policy we feel outweighs the reasons to stay in Oregon,” he said. “I don’t see the type of proactive support from the state government that I see from Idaho,” he said.

Other employers have worried that Oregon’s minimum wage increases would hurt their ability to compete, but Myers said area wages already meet or exceed the state rate.

Myers said Gov. Kate Brown’s office did reach out to him once it learned Owyhee Produce was considering moving.

“They gave me an ear. They wanted to know if they could convince me to stay and, if they did, what would it take,” he said.

Owyhee Produce is moving its Nyssa operations just across the Snake River into Idaho. Myers said his firm has operated its packing shed in Nyssa since 2007.

Just how much of a hit the county tax rolls will take when Owyhee Produce is fully entrenched in Idaho is still a question, said Malheur County Assessor Dave Ingram.

“There are a lot of ifs. So as far as impact it may or may not affect us and I am not sure right now,” Ingram said.

The tax bill for property now occupied by Owyhee Produce would depend on what’s built and the value of those improvements, Ingram said.

Golden Produce West Produce, another onion production business situated in Nyssa, is also moving to the Gem state but for different reasons than Owyhee Produce.

“Well it (the decision to move) is a couple of different factors. We really have outgrown our location in Nyssa and needed room to expand our operation,” he said.

Oregon’s new minimum wage law – approved into law in 2016 –had an influence in the judgment to move to Idaho, said Seward.

The winter also played a role, said Seward.

“We were planning on doing a more phased move over a five year plan and we lost several of our onion storage sheds due to the snow. We also lost our packing shed and the line so it just gave us a push to either make a decision to either rebuild or progress to our goal of getting into Idaho,” said Seward.

Seward said Golden West Produce tried to expand in Nyssa a few year back but the effort stalled. While the Nyssa Planning and Zoning board OK’d plans for the expansion, the city council balked and declined to approve the effort.

“The city, at that time, was not very responsive to our needs with regard to expansion,” said Seward.

Seward said Golden West Produce employs about 70 people.

Golden West is now building a new facility near Anderson Corner in Canyon County. Seward said his family has been in the onion business locally since 1937.