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Idaho labor: expensive and hard to find

By: Jake Putnam
Published in Video on  May 29, 2019

New Plymouth—From the fields of Payette County—workers are hard to find. and wages going into the 2019 season are competitive.

Galen Lee of Sunnyside Farm is harvesting the last of the 2019 asparagus crop, and he has plenty of worries getting the first harvest of the season in.

“We deal with it, we go and roll with the punches and we’re getting the crop in,” said Lee who has been farming since graduating from college three decades ago.

In Idaho, the unemployment rate hovers at just 3-percent and is considered at ‘full employment’ by state statisticians. Ag operations across the state are now hiring seasonal workers and seasonal demand for workers will be tight this year. “It’s hard to find workers,” said Lee. "And it's the one thing we can rely on this year. Labor will be expensive and workers hard to find,” added Lee.

For decades Sunnyside Farm has depended on Corral Ag Labor to meet their labor needs. This year Robert Corral was able to run full crews for the asparagus harvest.

“But it’s is getting harder to find people, what we’re seeing is that people don’t want to to do Ag work, but we’re keeping running with the people we have. Our workers have been with us a long time, they’re dependable and we’re getting it done,” said Corral

Idaho produces more than a hundred different Ag commodities, and the Gem State is the leading producer of potatoes, wheat, sugar beets, dairy, cheese, and cattle. But to get the billion dollar crops in, farmers need a dependable labor force.

“This prodigious output isn’t automatic and doesn’t happen by chance. American agriculture relies on hundreds of thousands of skilled workers to plant the fields, tend the crops, harvest the produce and pack it for markets both here and abroad. We don’t have enough of these workers,” said American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall. Duvall thinks the US Ag Labor system is broken and needs to be fixed. Farm work is episodic and seasonal, some crops like fruits and vegetables have a short window to be harvested, packed and shipped to market.

Dairy workers have the opposite problem because cows don’t take a day off. Workers milk the cows twice, sometimes three times, a day, 365 days a year. In either case, farm labor means long hours of hard work. Some critics say that guest worker programs depress U.S. wages, but the situation in agriculture proves that theory false.

"These jobs routinely pay well above minimum wage. Others say that H-2A workers give up too many rights when they sign contracts, and workers who break the law and work outside the system are far more vulnerable to exploitation. Many workers show up to work after paying a coyote a hefty fee. They have no guaranteed housing, as with H-2A, and they will find it harder to return to the same farm year after year," added Duvall 

The contractual arrangement under the current H-2A program has worked for some growers.

“And it should remain available to those who need it. But the wage structure in H-2A does not reflect market realities,” added Duvall. Should the rain stop in Idaho and farmers return to the fields, the weather is the least of their problems, they worry if they’ll have the workers to get their crops in," wrote Duvall in an LA Times Op-Ed in February.

Back in New Plymouth, it continues to rain, slowing the asparagus harvest. “The rain is nice,” says Lee, “its mother nature, but with labor, we will deal with and roll with the punches.”

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