Labor of Love

Posted in Blog, Farming on Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Farms need workers. Workers need farms. Everyone needs food.

Labor of Love

WASHINGTON STATE IS ONE OF THE MOST BOUNTIFUL AGRICULTURAL REGIONS IN THE WORLD. From the rich fields of the Skagit Valley to the wheat-covered, rolling hills of the Palouse, our state is blessed with an abundance of good soils, a perfect climate for growing crops, and abundant water – whether from rainfall or from irrigation projects along our many rivers. But our grocery shelves would not be stocked and our plates would not be full if not for the people who work hard every day to care for our food and the lands where it is raised. From the laborers in the orchards and fields keeping crops free from pests and harvesting at the peak of freshness, to the researchers who study crop and soil conditions and make recommendations, our bountiful agricultural system would collapse without the people involved.

Agriculture is a labor-intensive industry, and farm labor has been an integral part of the entire ecosystem for decades. Labor is a hot topic in Washington, and the situation is complex. Many farm laborers are "local workers," individuals and families that live in Washington's small farming communities and work regularly on farms nearby. Data from Washington's Employment Security Department shows that the use of "migrant labor" has dropped by 37% in the last five years. In the same time period, the number of farmworkers employed through the H-2A guest worker program, which allows employers to bring in foreign workers to fill temporary agricultural jobs, has nearly doubled.

Those three groups of laborers (local workers, migrant workers, and H-2A guest workers) make up the vast majority of farm labor employment in Washington. On the whole, their work in our fields and orchards is good for the laborers and their families, it's good for our farms, and it's good for the world.

As machinery, computers, and GPS have changed how laborers do their jobs, they are still critical to a farm's success. Farmers trust workers with thousands, if not millions, of dollars in equipment, plus the millions of dollars invested in each crop. This is especially true for fruit farms, where farms employ four times as many laborers as other types of farms. The trust between farm owners and workers is incredible, and it's part of the unique culture within agriculture.

On many Washington farms, the same farmworkers return year after year. Many of them have been a part of the farm for years and are considered part of the family. Many workers also bring relatives and the next generation with them when they return for the season. Farmers create tight relationships with their workers, and it's often a relationship that is passed down from one generation to another. The importance of multi- generational farms goes beyond the owners. Laborers and owners have worked together for generations, and they have a mutual respect for each other. They both need each other.

Without dependable farm labor, Washington simply would not be the bountiful growing region that it is. Without experienced, hard-working pickers, our crops of cherries, apples, blueberries, raspberries, pears, and plums would be decimated and diminished. Farmers would not be able to produce enough of their crops to feed the world. If not for dependable labor, many farms from the Yakima Valley to the Columbia Basin might cease to exist at all.

The farm isn't just a place or a 9-to-5 occupation. It is a life. And it takes many people to make it successful. Since humans began harvesting food through gathering native plants or by growing specific crops, it's been hard work. How do we value that? No matter how technologically advanced equipment and systems become, there will always be an element of grit, tenacity, and labor required. As people who depend on Washington's food supply, we are so thankful there are farmers and workers who are willing to work hard and ensure our food is as safe, affordable, and delicious as possible.

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