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Washington farms begin search for seasonal workers

Courtesy Washington State Fruit Commission

Some are maximizing their use of technology to minimize their need for people.

As the cherry harvest season begins across the Northwest, the labor market is tight, and farm work is no exception.

It’s no secret labor is scarce when it comes to picking crops. It has been for the last 10 years, says Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers’ League. But it’s even harder in an economy that favors workers.

“In 2022, Washington agriculture has adjusted by being more creative to meet the needs of the domestic workforce, increasing wages, and turning to the H-2A temporary visa program to get the supplemental labor during the peak labor demand periods," Gempler said.

The H-2A temporary VISA program allows U.S. employers who meet specific requirements to bring in foreign workers to fill temporary agriculture jobs.

Gempler says 70% of Washington state’s farm workers are from the U.S. He says many travel seasonally to work harvests throughout the Northwest.

Gempler hopes harvest technology can stabilize the labor demand curves, especially during peak harvest season.

“Technology, that's a labor assist technology, where it makes people more productive, makes the job safer, like picking from platforms, those kinds of things, where they're not going up and down ladders. They don't have picking bags on their shoulders. It makes it easier to do and it can make people more productive so you need fewer people," he said.

Gempler's advice for the agriculture industry is to make connections, bolster job benefits to be more competitive, and develop relationships with people so they are willing to return and work the following season.