Ag labor a growing challenge in Malheur County

By Mitchell Willetts

The Enterprise

For farmers in Malheur County, the labor pool is running dry.

The fields are emptying out, leaving more work for fewer hands, skilled or unskilled.

Dan Corn has been farming in Vale since 2005. The labor strain is the worst he’s seen in 13 seasons.

“We definitely don’t have nearly the same number of people stopping by looking for jobs,” Corn said. “We’re not in crisis mode yet, but we’re close to it.”

Farm labor accounts for about one out of 10 jobs in Malheur County, helping sustain a $450 million-a-year agriculture economy.

A lack of workers is particularly problematic for onion growers, a common crop in Malheur County that still requires extensive hands-on labor.

“At this point, all our employees are critical,” Corn said. “There’s no farm in this valley that can operate without dependable skilled and unskilled labor.”

There are several reasons for the labor shortage. Talk to a farmer in Malheur County and they’ll give you three — two on the record and one off.

One is competing with a booming construction industry in Boise over the same workforce. The building business can offer $15 to $16 an hour, five days a week. Farmers generally can’t match that pay for field workers.

Another strain is increasing mechanization. As machines replace jobs, workers move on to other employment, leaving the local labor market.

The third and perhaps most telling explanation is that the largely undocumented migrant farm labor workforce has been immobilized by fears of deportation. Those in the U.S. are acting more cautious than before, and those south of the border have decided the increased risk posed by new immigration laws outweighs any potential reward. They’re staying put.

“A lot of the people that normally come from Mexico and Central America, they’re not wanting to risk running afoul of the authorities anymore,” said Stuart Reitz, an extension agent with Oregon State University.

Reitz’ work puts him in regular contact with agricultural employers and employees alike.

Corn is not alone in his labor woes, Reitz said.

“It’s been a downward trend. Last year seemed to be much worse and a much tighter labor pool than in the previous couple of years,” Reitz said. “It’s been that way this season as well.”

The issue has drawn the attention of Gov. Kate Brown, who discussed immigration challenges directly with Agricultural Secretary Sonny Pardue in a recent trip to Washington.

Getting a handle on the shadowy world of undocumented workers isn’t easy. Groups that represent undocumented workers wouldn’t talk for the record or didn’t respond to messages. The Mexican consulate in Portland agreed to an interview but never arranged one.

State agencies, such as the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, say they have little information. The Oregon Department of Employment wouldn’t allow its workers based in Malheur County to be interviewed, instead insisting that written questions be submitted to its Salem headquarters 300 miles away.

One entity watching the labor situation closely is the state Board of Agriculture, a high-power group that advises the state agency. Its work suggests that farm labor shortages are a statewide problem.

The board set aside time at its May meeting to hear from the agricultural industry and frustrations with getting federal immigration changes that would help the industry.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, there’s a lot of fear,” said board member Stephanie Hallock.

Operations that don’t require a large workforce increasingly have trouble finding skilled labor.

“They used to have people who would return year after year. They learned what they were doing, or already knew how to do everything,” Hallock said. “Well, they’re not returning year after year anymore.”

A recent report co-authored by Hallock states that, “Migrant workers provide the backbone of Oregon’s agricultural workforce, and tighter immigration enforcement discourages some workers from coming to our region.”

“Attention is being paid at a very high level in Oregon ag,” Hallock said. “The department tries to encourage change at a national level that will help us.”

Corn raises seven crops on a 2,000-acre operation, employing six irrigators, four machine operators, plus weeding crews and other temporary labor. He has just enough labor to keep things running normally, but if current trends continue, he won’t.

“If I had a guy walk over here today looking for a job, he’d have it in a minute,” Corn said.

Problems this season are compounded by the damaging winter weather earlier this year, Corn said. Many storage and packing facilities still aren’t operating and will likely remain that way by fall harvest time. Fewer workers in the field mean fewer workers available to put back together the damaged onion-farming infrastructure.

“It’s such an unusual set of circumstances that we’re not really prepared for it as far as labor or any of the tools we need,” Corn said. “It’s going to take a few years to even out.”

Kay Riley, co-owner of Snake River Produce, and a former president of the National Onion Association, has been lobbying for immigration reform for more than a decade.

He travels to Washington every year with other packers and farmers, visiting Congressmen and officials, pleading his case. He hasn’t had much luck.

“They keep talking about walls and enforcement but…nobody’s really trying to fix the problem,” Riley said. “They want to keep everybody out, but there are jobs that need to be filled here.”

It’s much different now than it once was, he said. These are times of low tolerance and high enforcement, not like his boyhood days, working in the dirt with the hired hands. Where the field hands came from didn’t seem to matter so much then, just that they wanted to work. He wants to see that continue, for their benefit and his own.

The best solution, he says, is an overhauled guest worker program, a way to earn a fair wage without fear.

“These people, many of them have been in our communities for generations now,” Riley said. “Let’s bring them more into the element, understanding that it’s not like we’re going to send 11 million people back to Mexico.”

Like Riley, Reitz agrees that if the current treatment of immigrant labor continues, the agricultural industry will endure growing labor shortages.

“Until the immigration issues get resolved in favor of bringing agricultural workers in, it’s just going to be harder and harder for farmers to find people to do the work they need done,” Reitz said.

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