Sunday, June 18, 2000, 12:00 a.m. Pacific
Facts about the Washington farming industry
- Washington farmers produced $5.2 billion worth of products in 1998. Agriculture and its related businesses are the state's largest industry.
- Washington led the nation in the production of 13 crops in 1998, including apples, cherries, pears, hops, asparagus and raspberries, all of which depend on hand labor.
- Washington growers produced $684.5 million worth of apples in 1998, 17 percent less than the previous year because of a drop in prices. The sweet-cherry crop was worth $127 million, down 4 percent from 1997. The pear harvest brought $104 million in 1998, a 16 percent drop from the previous year.
- Land planted in Washington's orchards has more than doubled since 1964, increasing from 141,000 to 301,000 acres.
- Expansion of labor-intensive agriculture has created tens of thousands of jobs, especially in the Columbia Basin and Yakima Valley where thousands of fruit trees are planted every year. Bearing acreage of apples increased from 136,000 to 172,000 acres, an increase of 26 percent, from 1990 to 1998. Bearing acreage of cherries jumped 31 percent.
- The number of seasonal farmworkers across the state varies through the year. The low is in January, with 12,600 workers employed statewide, mostly in pruning.
- Seasonal employment peaks at 59,500 in July, then picks up again to 59,000 in October with apple, pear and potato harvests.
- Throughout the course of the year, 152,600 workers were employed in agriculture in 1999, down from 161,400 workers in 1998, a record apple-crop year. About 125,000 seasonal workers make up the bulk of the work force.
- Washington growers estimate at least 50 percent and as much as 70 percent of the work force is illegal.
- The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, estimates more than 600,000 farmworkers across the country are employed illegally.
- Workers who use fake Social Security numbers have taxes deducted from their pay but can't legally claim benefits. The Social Security Administration has counted $265 billion in wages it can't match to any valid Social Security numbers.
- At least 200 to 300 people were killed every year crossing the border between 1993 and 1997, according to a University of Houston study.
- The United States has a guest-worker program, but it is not widely used. The program requires growers to pay for housing and transportation for all nonlocal domestic and foreign workers recruited under the program and pay workers at least $7.64 an hour in Washington.
- Some growers and politicians back a federal bill that would grant legal permanent residence to farmworkers who work in U.S. fields at least 180 days a year for five of the next seven years. Part of the bill would change the guest-worker law to allow easier legal access to immigrant labor.
- Tree-fruit growers, who employ by far the largest number of seasonal workers, paid average annual earnings of $3,950 in 1998.
- The apple industry in Washington employs more seasonal workers than any other agricultural enterprise -- 49 percent of all seasonal workers in 1998 and 45 percent in 1999. Harvesters in the state's major apple-growing regions earned $6.06 to $6.16 an hour in 1998. That was before the state's minimum wage of $6.50 an hour went into effect in January 2000.
- Cherry growers employ the second-largest number of seasonal workers in the state. Employment in the cherry harvest peaked at nearly 16,000 workers in July 1999. Workers paid on an hourly basis averaged $5.85 in the north central region of the state in 1998. Overall, tree-fruit wages averaged $8.20 an hour in 1998, $2.02 more than the national hourly average wage for farm work and an increase from $7.88 an hour in 1997. Pickers paid on a piece rate see a wide range of wages. Cherry pickers can make $80 to $100 a day.
Sources: state Employment Security Department, Labor Market and Economic Analysis Branch, 1999 Survey of the Washington Agricultural Workforce; Washington Growers League; U.S. Department of Labor; office of Gov. Gary Locke.