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Borders & Heritage

Fearing Loss of Skilled Labor, Washington Farmers Safeguard Migrant Workers

According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, labor shortages nationwide could cost farmers up to $3 billion by next year.

September 28, 2017

SKAGIT VALLEY, Wash. — The squeaky crunch of fresh kale leaves being picked breaks the early morning silence at Ralph’s Greenhouse vegetable farm, about 3 miles southwest of Mt. Vernon. A team of 14 workers has just arrived in an old converted school bus, exchanging morning pleasantries in Spanish and several indigenous Mexican languages as they begin the day’s work. Within less than an hour, the acre-sized patch has been harvested, weeded and prepared for new growth.

Ray De Vries, longtime owner of the farm (and son of Ralph) says that he is continually amazed by the speed and expertise of these workers.

“Contrary to popular belief, farming is a skilled trade, no different than an electrician or a plumber,” says De Vries. “These farm workers make farms work. ... We wouldn’t be able to get done what we need to without them.”

According to the most recent Washington State Farmworker Survey, almost half of the farm workers in the Skagit Valley are migrants from Mexico. They play a major role in the region’s $300 million agricultural industry, as experienced field workers, irrigation specialists, seed experts and mechanics.

But they also face increased threats under new leadership at the federal level — threats that have forced farmers like De Vries to get creative.

What we have is a highly skilled labor force and no good way to get them here.

Under the more aggressive immigration enforcement policies enacted by the Trump administration, migrant farmworkers with no criminal records are being arrested twice as often as last year, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It has only exacerbated a shortage of skilled farm labor in the Valley.

“What we have is a highly skilled labor force and no good way to get them here,” De Vries says. “To me, these random changes in policy don’t make sense.”

An immigrant himself, having moved to the United States from the Netherlands as a child, De Vries has tried using the government’s only legal temporary and seasonal worker immigration program, known as the H2A Visa. The heavily regulated system nearly bankrupted him.

“You’re supposed to estimate so many months ahead of time how many workers you’ll need, then you have to pay for their transportation and you’ve got to house them while they’re here. It’s expensive,” says De Vries.

“The rest of us don’t want to move from temporary job to temporary job. Why should experienced farm workers?” asks De Vries.

But weather and fluctuating demand can quickly change a farmer’s labor needs, leaving him or her with workers to house and feed but a crop that’s not ready to harvest.

De Vries says he keeps required records on all of his employees and has complied with more frequent ICE check-ins and audits. But he knows the Valley’s agricultural system could not function without undocumented workers.

“It’s really difficult to find, say, a hundred berry pickers when you need them. But those farmers have to make that harvest or they don’t turn a profit… so we need some common sense here folks.”

De Vries — now in his 60s — has seen several waves of immigration contribute to this rich agricultural area, including the one that brought him and his family here from the Netherlands when he was a schoolboy. So when he saw the way new immigration policies were impacting workers and their families, he decided to do something about it.

Out of concern for the valley’s many seasonal workers and their families, as well as for the future of his business, he made a number of changes on the farm to be able to keep migrant workers from having to move with the harvest seasons.

“We grow mostly cold-weather crops — leeks, beets, kale, chard. The goal is to provide year-round employment for the people that work with us, so that determines — to a large extent — the crops that we grow.”

De Vries has also partnered with other farmers in the area to coordinate crop harvests and scheduling needs, making sure that families don’t have to resort to moving out of state to make ends meet.

“The rest of us don’t want to move from temporary job to temporary job. Why should experienced farm workers?” asks De Vries. “You gotta uproot the whole family, move them off to a new area... your kids have to start a new school, all the money you saved from the last job is spent on the trip and you’re always working hand-to-mouth.”

While several other Skagit Valley producers have been linked to controversies surrounding farm worker living conditions and treatment, De Vries has been able to provide steady work and a better quality of life to many of his workers.

Latinos, Hispanics — the ones who do the heavy jobs and all the harvesting — our work extends to the entire country. Even to the plate of the president!

An added bonus: They’re less likely to accidentally fall into the hands of immigration officials.<

“I’ve heard about people being stopped by mistake while ICE was looking for someone else and then they take that person in anyway and detain them,” De Vries says.

Research shows that most migrant workers who are arrested get apprehended while traveling from one job to another.

“These farm workers make farms work. ... We wouldn’t be able to get done what we need to without them,” says De Vries.

On the day of the kale harvest, one young field worker and seed technician, who asked that her name not be used, says she’s been able to sign a year-long lease on an apartment and has seen her children’s grades improve at school.

“What matters to me more than anything is my family,” she says. “I don’t want them to always be moving schools, changing friends. I would like them to stay here.”

She goes silent for a moment before admitting that she currently doesn’t have proper legal documentation: “It’s worrying, but for us undocumented people it’s always this way, only now it’s worse.”

De Vries, for his part, insists that he is following the law to the letter and he has seen few arrests at the farm this year. But in the Skagit Valley, Ralph’s Greenhouse is the exception rather than the rule. Arrests, detentions and surprise sweeps continue to rise.

With the immigration debate raging on Capitol Hill, this community and others like it around the country are watching closely, waiting to see what other policy changes may be in store.

Whatever comes of that debate, increased enforcement is likely to be expensive. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, if all undocumented farm workers left the country, the farming industry would lose between $30 and $60 billion in total revenue. Meanwhile, government spending on immigration enforcement has risen by $1.5 billion per year.

The undocumented worker at the kale field says the crackdowns miss a critical point.

“Some people say we’re taking away their jobs. That’s not true,” she says. “Latinos, Hispanics — the ones who do the heavy jobs and all the harvesting — our work extends to the entire country. Even to the plate of the president!”


Nils Cowan

A native of Calgary, Canada who cut his teeth in the documentary industry of Washington, D.C., Nils moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 after working on a National Park Service film about Mt. Rainier and falling in love with the area. He has been producing non-fiction content for thirteen years, from broadcast and independent documentaries to museum films and non-profit PSAs. One of his most recent films, 'Beyond the Visible’ which reveals the inner workings and transformational science of the Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico, was just awarded the 2014 Cine Golden Eagle Award for non-fiction storytelling.  Nils lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids.

More stories by Nils Cowan

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There used to be programs in which farm/temporary labor could easily come into the country, but they left at the end of the year. Some of their income was deposited for when they returned to Mexico . This system worked.The SantaRosa fires were started by an illegal alien who had returned to Mexico twice, and who was a known criminal whom ICE tried to remove multiple (5?) times. Since the morons in Santa Rosa and California tend to be "sanctuary cities" they ended up harboring a person who contributed significantly to billions of $$$ in damages, over 40 deaths, and the loss of over 6,000 homes.Just glad it never climbed the hill to get into our country. Unregulated immigration is NOT intelligent. Reinstate the old programs that had worked.  Fact check the claims made by "brad" regarding illegal immigrants being responsible for CA wildfires...   

What a good article to bring more light to the subject of Undocumented Workers who are the "Skilled Laborers" bringing our vegetables to us each and every day, every week! I totally agree with that. What I don't understand is quite simply the subject that these workers are undocumented. Why? Why are they willing and even choose to come to America to better there lives BUT they do not put forth the effort to speak English (the mother language of this Country) and they will not put forth the effort to become Legal Citizens? So why? Just do it! Mr. Ray De Vries admits to being a immigrant himself. Yet he speaks English.
So what my point is, is this-
If these undocumented individuals are afraid of deportation and breaking up there families then why can't they simply get themselves legalized! In other words study along side their school age children and learn English and study to become Citizens! It seems like a great solution, for they would then be dual citizenship holders and they would keep their families together and prosper. Plus I would imagine these people would become more admired for there efforts than the disrespect and degrading way they are looked at now in THIS COUNTRY.
Finally I would also simply point out a small flaw in the article above in that there is no "city" called "Skagit Valley" as the author points out. I thought that the way an article notes a place is by stating it's CITY & STATE. The author should have noted this as Mount Vernon, WA because Skagit is a County.
Just an FYI.
Sincerely, Mrs. R.