Immigrant Farm Owners and Farm Workers Help Drive Yakima County’s Diverse Ag

The agriculture economy in this southern Washington county churned out $1.7 billion in production in 2012. It's productivity is built on fertile soil, irrigation, and immigrants. Farmers and workers -- who increasingly live year-round in Yakima County -- both have a lot riding on federal policy.

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When it comes to the national debate about immigration and agriculture, few counties have more at stake for their local economy than Yakima County, Washington. Yakima’s agricultural productivity — fruit, specialty crops, and dairy — is built on fertile volcanic soils, water infrastructure, and immigrant labor.

According to the most recent USDA Agriculture Census (conducted in 2012), the county produced $1.65 billion of agricultural products. Among counties nationally, Yakima County is first in apple acreage, first in revenue from hops production, first in sweet cherry production, seventh in revenue from milk production and fifteenth in wine grape acreage.

That kind of production requires a lot of labor. To fill the need, Yakima County has seen a steady rise in immigrants, most of whom are Hispanic or Latino. Currently, 48.3% of the Yakima County population claims Hispanic or Latino heritage, recently eclipsing the white population (44.3%) according to U. S. Census data. In 1990, only 23.9% of Yakima County was Latino or Hispanic.

The demographic change has resulted in more immigrants living in Yakima County year-round and in opportunities for some to move ahead in the farming economy.

Alvarez Organic Farm, near Mabton, was founded by a Mexican-born immigrant in 1981. They have watched the area grow and change as more immigrants arrive. “We’re a big family in a little town,” said Steve Alvarez, a second generation Yakima Countian. Alvarez and his family raise 88 acres of organic vegetables. “But we can’t do it alone. We have to hire a lot of people to fill the need for our produce.”

The Alvarezes deliver their produce to a variety of farmers-market and wholesale customers throughout Washington. “We’ve seen big growth, big demand, and big success,” says Alvarez. The family says that immigrant labor is the backbone of the local economy. “The organic supply chain, the fruit around here, the hops, production is booming. There is a lot of work to get our produce to market, and local labor is a necessity.”

Steve’s father, Hilario, immigrated to the region from Mexico, where he sold his farm to seek additional opportunity and more earning potential in the United States. He came to Yakima County as a farm laborer in the region’s apple orchards. From there, he worked and saved to buy his own land. The family has seen, and benefited from, the region’s growth as a destination for immigrant agricultural labor.

“The workers, the people who live in the little towns, they want to work. They want to have a job right here at home. When you do that, you have very little turnover. On our farm, we don’t have very much turnover,” says Alvarez.

When asked about the controversy over immigration policy and President Trump’s budget proposals to cut agriculture funding, Steve Alvarez expressed deep concern. “They’d be devastating. This kind of farming, lots of picking and doing things by hand, is how our local economy thrives. Agriculture in this area is based on supporting immigrant farmers and immigrant labor.” Alvarez believes that more resources should be provided by USDA, and says that the agriculture community in Yakima understands the important role immigrants play in supporting farm labor needs.

The Center for Latino Farmers in Yakima provides such resources to local farmers. “The people we assist are looking for capital, loans for land and also for operating capital,” explained Maria Giedra, outreach specialist for the center. “We help them find loans from the Farm Services Agency, help them understand what program is best for them.”

“Second in need is crop insurance from the Risk Management Agency. The farmers have to protect their fruit trees, their grapes and their crops,” continued Giedra. “We also help them apply for funding through Rural Development. That’s for processing, for storage, for value-added items.”

The center serves farmers with education, technical assistance, and support for enrolling in USDA programs. They hold meetings and trainings on crop production, record-keeping, post-harvest handling of farm outputs, and regulations that affecttheir farms. Much of the information is delivered in both Spanish and English.

“Without our help, a lot of the farmers wouldn’t be able to get the loans and programs they need to be successful,” Giedra said.

The Center serves several hundred farmers per year. Of those receiving training and assistance in 2016:

  • 92% were born in Mexico, 8% in the U. S.
  • 88% speak Spanish at home, 12% speak English.
  • 84% have lived in the U. S. for 20+ years.
  • 50% did not have a high school diploma.
  • 88% had a full-time job in addition to their personal farm operation.

The funding to provide these services, which primarily benefit Hispanic and Latino farmers, comes from USDA grants and partnerships.

Giedra was quick to point out that all of the center’s clients are either U. S. citizens or legal immigrants. “They are citizens primarily,” she said. “A few of them are fully legal immigrants. If they are not citizens, they have Green Cards to work and operate businesses.”

The Center for Latino Farmers is a project of the larger regional economic development organization, Rural Community Development Resources (RCDR). Just like its center focused on training and serving Latino agriculturists, RCDR is highly dependent upon federal grants and partnerships to serve the nonfarming population. They are a certified Department of Treasury Community Development Financial Institution. RCDR’s staff and technical assistance resources are supported by the Economic Development Administration. A portion of the loan funding they provide to entrepreneurs comes from the Small Business Administration.

All of these federal programs, and the capital and human capacity provided by the federal funds, were slated to be either cut or eliminated altogether in the president’s preliminary budget outline released last month.

“Oh yes. We’re concerned. We’re very much concerned about the budget proposal,” said Giedra.

And it’s not just Latino and Hispanic farmers that are concerned about policy actions “in the other Washington.” The Washington Growers League (WGL) assists farmers with a variety of farm labor needs. They help producers find housing for the workers they hire, as well assist in dealing with regulations and legal issues associated with hiring immigrant labor.

WGL’s Steve Gempler works for immigration reform that provides a legal mechanism for agricultural workers. He explained what’s at stake to Washington’s farm community in the report his group co-sponsored in August. “We are exposed in our industry — I’ll admit it, and I think that everybody knows it.”

Gempler said that immigration reform is “not just for the benefit of the people in the industry, but for the benefit the people who come here and work very hard to try to make a life for themselves in the United States and in Mexico and other countries from which they come.”

WGL’s opinion on immigration reform is similar to that of a large national effort of agriculture interests, the Agriculture Workforce Coalition. The coalition has worked on legislation that would provide farmers with labor from immigrants while also addressing the legality concerns of many American citizens.

“We’ve got a twofold problem in American agriculture,” said Chuck Connor, the CEO of the National Council of Agriculture Cooperatives (NCAC), a member of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition’s Steering Committee. “There’s a need for a viable guestworker programs to address farm labor shortages.” Connor says that a strong guestworker program, like the one promoted by NCAC, could help solve the challenge of illegal immigration.

Second, without farmworker labor “more and more crops don’t get harvested. That’s waste and innefficiency for American farmers. We see more and more imports coming along and taking away markets from domestic producers,” said Connor.

While there is a tremendous amount of work to be done, Connor is hopeful. He points to the Senate’s successful passage of comprehensive immigration reform in the last Congress, though the House never took up the bill. “And we’ve got a long way to go before the budget is finalized. It’s got to work it’s way through Congress,” Connor said about the President’s budget blueprint

Connor, who served as interim Agriculture Secretary and Deputy Agriculture Secretary in the second term of President George W. Bush, will keep putting his long public service experience to work. He says that there is one principle guiding everyone in Washington, D.C: “No one wants to have policy that drives agricultural production overseas. No one.”

 

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