Immigration puts hop growers in a pinch

Estella Marem works in the hops field at Loftus Ranches, a fourth-generation hop farm in the Yakima Valley on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Among the difficulties hops growers face, labor is high on the list. In this regard, Loftus Ranches is in the same boat as onion, asparagus, apple and cherry growers across central and Eastern Washington.

The workers in Loftus fields are mostly Mexican or Mexican-American. They wear hooded sweatshirts to protect themselves from the glaring sun, and many have bandanas over their faces to guard against dust.

Jorge Gomez, a 24-year-old worker, said he was born in Hidalgo, Mexico, but came to the U.S. “a long, long time ago” with his parents. He graduated from high school in Yakima and follows the typical rotation of Yakima farmworkers: hops training in the spring, followed by picking cherries and apple harvest.

The supply of workers has dwindled in recent years, he said, as more people are reluctant to go out into the fields “out of fear they’ll be forced to leave.”

He said there hasn’t been a marked increase in deportations or roundups of immigrants without legal documentation around Yakima, but people are still fearful because of the national crackdown.

Gomez said he’s in the U.S. legally. As for his co-workers, he gave a wry smile. “I’m not sure,” he said.

At the farm’s peak in the spring, Loftus employs about 250 workers to train hops and cut down vines that are too tall. Fall harvest takes about 180 workers, farmer Patrick Smith said.

His 1,800-acre farm, which he runs with his father, Mike, is among about 40 Washington producers that grow the bulk of American hops.

About 50 people work year-round, except for the slowest time around December and January.

“Industries like ours that rely on immigrant labor,” Smith said, have been “very, very negatively impacted by the tightening of immigration restrictions.”

Like many farmers, Smith requires Social Security numbers from his workers, but doesn’t use E-Verify. As far as he knows, everyone is legally authorized to work in the U.S.

But speaking broadly about hops and farming in general, he said if everyone working in the U.S. illegally was instantly deported tomorrow, “It would collapse. It would be ruinous for employers.”

Smith said labor shortages have led him and other hops growers to bring in foreign workers from the H-2A program, which he described as “a program the government designed for growers not to use” because of the bureaucracy involved.

The farm has about 150 H-2A workers now, some of whom are friends or family of other employees.

Employers are required to advertise jobs for U.S. citizens first, then provide housing for H-2A workers and pay them a specified amount above minimum wage. Smith said this season, it’s about $14.50 an hour, and will likely go up to $15 next season.