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Originally published June 2, 2014 at 7:59 PM | Page modified June 3, 2014 at 11:47 AM

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Berry farm to hire only domestic pickers, not use guest program

Sakuma Brothers, one of the largest berry suppliers in the state, says it will hire only domestic workers this season. Last year, its workers protested when the company brought in foreign workers to help bring in its crops.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sakuma Brothers Farms, one of the largest berry suppliers in the state, will hire only domestic workers this season and has also taken steps to improve work conditions, including better housing, supervisor training and enhanced food security, the Skagit Valley farm announced Monday.

The decision comes after a year of protests and calls for boycotts from farmworkers angry the company brought in guest workers from Mexico to supplement its workforce.

The protesting workers, many of whom formed an organization called Families United for Justice, said the farm would have no trouble finding domestic workers if it increased wages and improved conditions.

Over the weekend, Sakuma Brothers withdrew its application for the federal government’s H-2A guest-worker program, the farm said in a news release Monday. That program allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet requirements to bring in foreign nationals to fill temporary farm jobs, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“We recognize that it is a risk to go in this direction, given that the H-2A program provided us with a safety net for securing a labor force, but we are hopeful that working with local community farmworker advocates that we will be able to hire the workforce we need,” Steve Sakuma said in the news release.

Sakuma Brothers said it used the H-2A program for the first time last year to address continued shortages of “able, willing, qualified and eligible workers” to harvest the highly perishable berries. Sakuma produces strawberries, raspberries, conventional and organic blueberries and blackberries, as well as apples.

In the past two years, the farm says, it’s had to leave more than 900,000 pounds of berries unpicked in the fields because it did not have enough labor.

Farmworkers, however, said the farm wasn’t paying high enough wages to attract domestic workers.

“There is no shortage of workers; there is a shortage of farmers willing to pay a decent wage,” said Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community Development, a group based in Bellingham that worked with the farm laborers.

In its news release, Sakuma Brothers said the minimum wage for all berry pickers will be either $11.87 per hour — the wage set by the federal government for Washington for all domestic and foreign H-2A workers — or what workers earn piece-rate, whichever is higher.

The company said it has invested money to improve housing, will take steps to train every supervisor and farm manager, and will improve security throughout its properties “to protect the safety of its food and keep its employees safe and secure.”

Guillen said the workers are happy about the announcement and are waiting for the call from Sakuma Brothers to come back to work.

“We are very pleased,” Guillen said. “This is definitely a move in the right direction and is definitely the right thing to do for local agriculture and local economies.”

Paige Cornwell: 206-464-2530 or pcornwell@seattletimes.com



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