The COVID-19 pandemic complicates things, but Washington farmers and ranchers will press forward
Like any other business owners, farmers and ranchers are no strangers to challenges. Whether it is a downturn in commodity prices or a global pandemic, the agricultural industry maintains an ever-present drive to produce and continue forward.
The recent emergence of COVID-19 has not changed agriculture fundamentally, but it has highlighted some of the pressures farmers and ranchers in our state face annually.
As seasonal work begins to pick up in agricultural production, the need for employees increases as well. The 2020 demand for labor is the same as or greater than it was in 2019. The question that weighs heavily on the minds of agricultural employers is where their labor force will come from.
Washington state relies on the federal H-2A temporary agricultural jobs program to fill the needs of many farmers, particularly in the tree fruit industry. There had been concern in recent weeks that H-2A workers from outside the United States would not be allowed into the country due to travel restrictions. However, H-2A workers who have previously worked in the United States now will be allowed to work through the season here.
Once the workers arrive, there is an additional problem: the Adverse Effect Wage Rate. The federally mandated H-2A wage for Washington state, currently set at $15.80 per hour, operates as a driver for wages for the domestic and temporary work forces. When a farm hires an H-2A worker, an employer is required to pay all workers at the same rate as the H-2A worker, creating artificially high costs for all workers regardless of hiring status.
Beyond labor concerns going into the busy farming months, commodity prices and markets are currently fluctuating unpredictably. When demand in grocery stores goes up — shelves being emptied of flour, cold cases bereft of meat — there is a perception that commodity prices are on the rise. Higher market prices do not necessarily reflect a price increase at the farm gate. Market volatility is part of the agriculture industry. Whether it will last depends upon factors ranging from purchasing habits and contract availability to how long the COVID-19 crisis lasts.
A final note during this chaotic time: farmers and ranchers have been recognized by the United States Department of Homeland Security as providing an essential service. The reason for that is simple — the production of healthy, affordable food is critical to all of us. Washington’s farmers and ranchers have long been an important part of this state’s economy and will continue to be as we move forward beyond the current trying times and into the next farming season.
Pam Lewison is a fourth-generation farmer from Eastern Washington and the agriculture research director for the Washington Policy Center. She has a master’s degree in agricultural leadership, education and communications from Texas A&M University and completed her undergraduate studies at Washington State University. You can read more of her research at www.washingtonpolicy.org.