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Growers rely on dwindling immigrant workforce to harvest onions

Harry Hamada stands in front of a new automated onion packing machine which will soon start up at Walla Walla River Packing Company, which he manages to pack the sweet onions grown by his family and a few others. The Hamada family came to the Walla Walla region impoverished after World War II internment, growing their role in the onion business slowly after starting as field workers. The automation will help combat the rising costs of labor in the farm industry. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

It takes a crew of onion pickers just a few hours to transform a field from a sea of knee-high green to a dusty-brown collection of onion bulbs.

After farmers drive over with a tractor to undercut the bulbs, workers stream through, grabbing the loose onions and pulling them up. By late June, the harvest has been pushed back as early as 3 a.m. so crews can finish before the worst heat of the day begins.

The field takes on the sweet, slightly pungent smell of a fresh onion as workers make a second pass. Bent over, they grab a fistful of onions with practiced hands and shear the tops off, throwing the bulbs into a nearby box.

“Harvesting onions the way we do it is one of the hardest jobs there is,” said Harry Hamada, a second-generation onion farmer who manages the Walla Walla River Packing Shed. Few crops, aside from asparagus, demand as much repetitive, bent-over labor.

But after 30 years in the fields, Mauro Lopez said it’s not so bad.

“I have experience. I can’t say it’s very hard,” he said, speaking in Spanish.

Lopez, 57, came to Walla Walla in 1986 through a contractor to harvest Walla Walla Sweets. He’s a native of Oaxaca, Mexico, a state in southern Mexico bordering the Pacific Ocean where many U.S. farm workers come from.

Unlike many in the industry, Lopez is a U.S. citizen. He and his wife have a house in Walla Walla, and his daughter just graduated from Eastern Washington University with her teaching certificate, which causes him to beam with pride.

“All my life, I’ve worked here in the fields so my daughter can get ahead,” he said.

Lopez said the majority of onion harvesters he’s worked with over the years are in the U.S. illegally, though growers require a Social Security number from employees. He doesn’t think it’s likely those workers will be able to apply for amnesty or legal status in the U.S.

“I don’t think they’re going to give papers,” he said, referring to the federal government under President Donald Trump.

Hamada grew up working on his uncle’s onion farm. His parents and uncle lived in Kent, Washington, before World War II, but were interned during the war as people of Japanese heritage. They lost the farm and had nothing to go back to, so they moved to the Walla Walla area to farm after the war ended.

Vertical integration through the packing shed is one reason they’ve been able to stay in business. He and his brothers invested in their first packing facility around 1992 to give them more control over the final product being shipped to stores.

If supermarkets don’t like the quality of the onion, “it all falls back on the grower,” Hamada said. The current shed opened around 2000 to give them more space.

During harvest, a crew of about 60 people dries, sorts, packs and loads the onions. Women work on an inspection line, finding reject onions with cuts or blemishes that will be destined for fast food. Men drive forklifts, loading the semitrucks destined for Albertsons and Costco.

Earlier this summer, a few young men loading onions into bags were working in the plant as a summer job. Diego, who did not want to give his last name, said he’ll be heading to EWU in the fall to study business. He works with another young man shoving small, consumer-size bags of medium onions into boxes to ready them for shipping.

Onion farmers say labor is increasingly a challenge for them. Harvesting the globes is labor-intensive, and farmers face dual pressures: increased costs due to a rising minimum wage, and more difficulty filling open jobs.

This season, Hamada installed a new labor-saving machine that automates part of the sorting process, allowing him to cut the crew by about 10 people. He said he made the decision before the minimum wage went up, but that validated his decision.

Michael J. Locati, a fourth-generation sweet onion farmer who’s recently taken over his family’s share in the main growing consortium, said his workers asked for an increase in their piece rate, which is based on how much they harvest.

Workers are paid per 50-pound box they fill, and experienced workers can earn well above minimum wage, especially if the onions are larger. Because the state minimum wage was raised to $11 an hour at the beginning of the year, Locati gave his workers about a 20 percent raise on their piece rate this season.

He’s not opposed to the increase, but said people in urban areas need to recognize it’s going to impact the cost to produce their food.

“That’s great,” he said of the increase. “I think everyone deserves to be successful, but it doesn’t mean you’re not going to have to pay more.”

Hamada and Locati are part of the same growing consortium, which raises about 350 of the roughly 500 acres of Walla Walla Sweets in the area. This year, for the first time, they’ve brought in 13 workers on H-2A visas, which are for temporary agricultural workers.

Farmers often shy away from the visa program, which requires employers to house workers, transport them and guarantee a prevailing wage above the state minimum (though most will earn more at the piece rate). But Locati said this year they wanted to try it because workers have gotten harder to find.

Longtime workers like Lopez were part of a generation that was able to get amnesty and citizenship. They raised children who got an education and have choices besides working in onion fields. Locati doesn’t fault anyone for wanting better; it’s the same thing his grandparents did. But he said immigration restrictions have made it difficult for farmers to get a new generation of workers.

“We’re not getting replacements because it’s so hard to get across the border, it’s so hard to get a visa,” Locati said.

The onion harvest season overlaps with apples and cherries, so farmers compete for a scarce labor pool.

“Our government thinks that Americans will do that work. They’re kidding themselves,” Hamada said.

Labor isn’t the only difficulty growers face.

Increased competition from other sweet onions has made their product more difficult to sell, and Hamada worries about the future of the crop since many growers are aging out.

“Everything’s a challenge,” Hamada said with a laugh.