Farm Labor Shortage Looms on the High Desert

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(Workers at McPheeters Turf in Culver dig places to nestle plants for the winter inside a deer-fenced area during the week before Thanksgiving. Then the workers will be off until mid-January, if the ground is not too icy to dig up trees | Photo by Denise Holley)

Migrating Mexican farmworkers, who used to line up by the dozens at farms, are disappearing from the agricultural landscape in Central Oregon and across the country.

Vineyard manager Kerry Damon is looking high and low for farmworkers to prune, tend and harvest wine grapes near Redmond and Terrebonne. Four vineyards have recruited him to build a small labor force by February 2019, he said. He’s worked in the industry since the 1990s in California and never seen such a scarcity of workers.

“I’ve always been able to find capable and qualified people,” Damon said. “Not this year.”

Last summer, Faith, Hope and Charity Vineyards brought in crews from Salem to finish its harvest, said owner Cindy Grossmann.

For the past three years, T & H Farms in Culver has hired inmate crews from the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras for its spot labor times, said co-owner Mark Hagman. “I don’t know where else we would get workers.”

In a year with abundant water, T & H irrigates 1,200 acres of blue grass seed, carrot seed, garlic, peppermint and timothy hay, Hagman said. Their cycle begins in March when truckloads of young carrots arrive from California and he needs temporary workers for transplanting.

“There are fewer and fewer seasonal farmworkers in the area,” Hagman said. Nearly all his regular employees are Mexican, many in their 40s and 50s, and even an 80-
year-old.

In a report released in June, Oregon State University Extension Service estimated that the state has 82,961 migrant and seasonal farmworkers, but only about 700 work in Central Oregon.
“It’s not like it was before,” said Guadalupe Estrada, a foreman at Madras Produce. “All the people are permanent [long-time residents who work the agricultural season each year].”

McPheeters Turf, Inc. in Culver, a sod farm and wholesale nursery, employs ten to 15 people through Thanksgiving, and then lays them off until mid-January, said farm manager Jason Potampa. In March, he uses word of mouth to find extra workers to plant trees and then stack pieces of turf in the field.

Unsure about finding enough labor, the farm owner bought a stacking machine, but, “It doesn’t produce as quickly as the guys,” Potampa said. He believes the economic downturn in 2007 diminished the number of Mexican workers in the U.S.

“The Real ID Act (having to get a new driver’s license) scared some people, but I think the big issue was not being able to find work,” Potampa said. Now those workers are in demand. “I’m hopeful all our guys will come back in mid-January to dig trees,” Potampa said. Not all agricultural workers are guys. Lorena Barrera, a Culver resident since 2000, plants carrots, weeds fields and cleans dirt off crops at different farms, she said. One employer she likes lets his workers plant a vegetable garden on his property. “It’s very hard for low pay and the season is short,” Barrera said.
Recently, her husband left agriculture to work for a paving company, so the family will have a better income this winter. Barrera is hoping for a good snowfall in the mountains for irrigation water. “If there’s no snow, there’s no work in the fields.”

In Prineville, farmworker Juan Ramírez stays busy year-round and earns about $15 an hour, he said. He does the heavy work of irrigation and drives a tractor during harvest, then works for cattle ranchers during the winter. He feeds cows, helps with calving and builds and repairs fences. Ramírez began working in the fields in Mexico when he was eight, he said. He joined his sister in Prineville in 2000. “Most people want to earn more money with less work,” he said. His 19-year-old twin sons have helped him on the job, but they want to study. Children of farmworkers, reared in the U.S., rarely follow their parents into the fields, said Claire Sullivan, a field crop expert with Oregon State University Extension. “Their kids want to do other jobs.”

Damon points to two reasons for the shortage. Many farmworkers find higher pay in construction, landscaping and golf park maintenance, jobs that last for more of the year. Another reason is immigration enforcement. “The Trump administration and their policies have scared the heck out of these guys.”

Younger farmworkers from Mexico can’t get across the border or get a visa to enter the U.S., Hagman said. “As soon as you get close to someone getting a work permit, they change the rules. It’s tough for them (farmworkers) to be documented.”

Some farmers bring in crews from the Willamette Valley, Sullivan said. But that wouldn’t work for Damon’s February through September wine grape jobs. If he can recruit experienced vineyard workers outside the area, “Where are they going to live?” Damon asked, referring to Central Oregon’s shortage of affordable housing. “The best scenario would be to find the labor force in Central Oregon.”

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