Northwest farmers

Anna King

 

A slowdown at western ports is now aggravating farmers across the Northwest.

Produce processors are laying off production line workers. Apples are backing up. And the summer’s premium hay is stacked in sheds and not moving.

Courtesy of Seth Holmes

Seth Holmes is a doctor and anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley who did something that wouldn’t occur to most white, middle-class, highly-educated Americans.

About a decade ago, he spent a year and a half traveling, living with and working alongside migrant indigenous Mexican farmworkers from the state of Oaxaca. His stint included two seasons picking strawberries and blueberries on a large farm in Skagit County.

Northwest sweet cherry growers say they'll likely pick 20 million boxes full — their third largest haul ever — this season. But there’s plenty that can happen to cherries before then, even on the day of harvest.

Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Utah grow about two-thirds of the nation’s sweet cherries. And this year, demand should be even higher for those candy-like fruit as a result of the dismal cherry growing weather in California. The continuing drought in that state and poor pollination has thinned out their crops. 

The number of farms in the Northwest is dropping, according to newly-released federal farm data.

But there's more to the story. The average size and value of Northwest farms are going up.

J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press

Northwest farmers hired significantly more foreign guest workers this season under a special immigration program. Farms in Washington state accounted for most of the increase in this region, followed by Idaho. Oregon farmers tend not to use the special visa much.

Farmers worried about having enough hands to process labor-intensive crops can hire temporary foreign workers after they prove they can't find anyone in this country. The guest workers recruited here through this legal avenue mostly come from Mexico.