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Originally published Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 8:02 PM

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Farm-labor question is loaded with issues beyond the work itself

Separate problems aren't solutions to farm-labor shortage, says columnist Jerry Large.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Whether it's making Apple computers or picking apples from trees, the labor involved in getting what we want — and getting it cheaply — creates its own problems.

This year farm labor is in such short supply that Washington farmers have left a tenth of some crops unharvested.

Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes has been writing lately about harvests of asparagus, cherries and other crops that depend on a large, cheap, seasonal labor force. Those workers are mostly from Mexico, and you'd be right to guess they are not all carrying the documents required to legally enter the United States and work here.

Some readers reacted to Mapes' first story last week by suggesting farmers hire idle city teenagers or homeless people to fill their gaps.

I'm sure you've heard that before. Hard work would build character for kids and unemployed people and put money in American pockets, etc.

Child-labor laws, aside, who wants to cut asparagus seven days a week for nearly three months for $10 or $11 an hour? And then, because the work is seasonal, be out of work again and a long way from home? Did I say home? Homelessness is an issue for some farmworkers, too.

And employers are not crazy about the idea of untrained workers who might not stick it out for a season.

Alan Schreiber, one of the farmers Mapes interviewed, has had some experience with that. Schreiber & Sons Farm north of Pasco grows a variety of crops. You've probably picked up some of their melons at PCC.

I called Schreiber, and he told me harvesting crops didn't work for his own son.

"My son just turned 16, and I made him work out here," Schreiber said, "He wound up hating it," and found another job.

Of course his son doesn't have to pick for a living. For most of our history, that kind of labor has been done by people at the bottom of the economic order. And that is true around the world.

Schreiber said his great uncle picked apples when he first came to Washington, but these days, "You won't find anyone named Schreiber picking. No one from my family will work like that again."

I looked up some Washington state history from the University of Washington's Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project. Agricultural workers here were mostly non-Hispanic whites until the 1980s. There were lots of Native American and Asian farmworkers, too, but they were outnumbered by white immigrants and migrants.

The children of those workers moved up to higher-paying jobs, and more and more spots were filled by workers from Mexico and Central America.

Now their numbers are declining as some choose to return to Mexico, and others don't make the journey at all. This is partly because Mexico's economy is improving and partly because there are more deportations and hardships in the United States.

What is needed is a long-term solution, stability for workers and farmers, but that's not likely to happen. Schreiber represents other asparagus farmers and has made a few trips to the other Washington in search of a manageable policy. But, he said: "The right wing of the Republican Party will not budge on this."

"People who say, 'Have teenagers, prisoners, the unemployed do the work' — that is an ideological position, not a viable solution," he said.

The question of farm labor is loaded with issues beyond the work itself — feelings about immigrants, about the causes and cures for unemployment — which is why it defies solution.

It's a problem in need of a less-political solution, and there may be one down the road. The Washington State Extension website has an update on projects to create robotic pickers for apples and cherries, two labor-intensive crops. Some of the technology exists and just needs to be adapted, the update said.

The problems of what to do with idle teens, and how to help homeless people in cities, need their own solutions.

But if you want to work in the fields for a season, check Washington Worksource for a list of jobs.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays. | 206-464-3346


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