Washington State’s 39,000 farms, spread throughout our 39 counties, are a key economic driver for our state. We are the top producers in the country for apples, sweet cherries, concord grapes and red raspberries. Washington State University noted in 2011 that the agriculture community contributed $1.5 billion in wages to the state’s economy, $219 million in tax revenue, $16 billion in economic impact and 82,000 jobs.
As an apple farmer, I am justifiably proud of the fact that our state is “The Apple Capitol of the World.” Our apples are sold in all 50 states and in more than 50 countries. While innovation and technology have brought about many changes in farming, they still have not replaced the workers required to hand prune and hand pick the largest apple crop in the country. It takes approximately 70,000 harvest workers each year to get the crop off the trees. For a perishable crop such as apples, the delay of even a few days of harvest workers can make the difference between apples that achieve top price and those that are destined for the processing market.
People are familiar with many of the daily challenges farmers face, such as the weather, pests and blight, but there is one challenge those not involved in the industry are generally unaware of: the availability of workers. The state’s agriculture department released a report, “The Future of Farming: Strategic Plan for Washington Agriculture 2020 and Beyond,” that outlined five challenges that must be overcome to ensure that agriculture remains a vital economic player. The third of the five challenges listed is labor or, more precisely, the fact that “the future of farming here will be heavily influenced by how effectively the labor problem is addressed.”
Without a solid, skilled and dependable workforce, families like mine will be unable to continue in the fruit business. For the apple industry, and other industries ranging from berries to vegetables, to survive in Washington and nationwide, we need a legal, reliable, stable and skilled workforce. Farmers will convert to low-value grain crops or fail altogether if we are left to live with the status quo. We will end up exporting jobs, and be left in the position of importing our food. So, not only will failure to pass a comprehensive immigration bill put tens of thousands of farmers’ livelihoods at risk, it also imperils our economy and our country’s food safety.
Congress last made changes to our immigration policy 27 years ago, which is more than sufficient time to prove that the system is broken. The Senate has taken the first step toward a new system by passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes provisions that would ensure farmers have access to a legal and stable workforce. It also takes important steps to strengthen border security. Now, we need the House of Representatives to do the same when they return to Washington in September. I crossed party lines and endorsed Sen. Maria Cantwell last year to send a message to my fellow Republicans that unless they become part of the immigration solution, they will lose the support of thousands of Washington fruit growers.
Farmers here in Washington and across the country cannot afford to put off this issue any longer. Our livelihoods and those of the people who work for us depend on Congress creating a common-sense 21st-century immigration program.