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Originally published June 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 26, 2007 at 12:21 PM

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Worker shortage takes toll on crops

A labor shortage that hurt Washington asparagus growers will likely continue as the agriculture industry moves into its busiest months. Workers who had been harvesting...

KENNEWICK — A labor shortage that hurt Washington asparagus growers will likely continue as the agriculture industry moves into its busiest months.

Workers who had been harvesting asparagus spears recently moved on to the cherry crop, leaving some asparagus growers to plow up their remaining harvest.

"If we don't solve the labor issue soon, asparagus won't be anything but a very rare specialty in Washington," said Mike Miller, owner of Airport Ranch in Sunnyside, Yakima County.

Jim Middleton, chairman of the state's asparagus commission, is pulling out 45 of his 180 asparagus acres north of Pasco.

"It's strictly due to the lack of labor and it's gotten worse every year," he said. "This year I had some fields I could only cut until the middle of May. You can't stay in business without labor."

Alan Schreiber, administrator for the Washington Asparagus Commission, said growers, on average, ended harvest 10 days earlier than usual.

"That means we lost about 9 percent — 7.5 million pounds," he said, about $11 million worth of asparagus on the fresh market alone.

A month ago, Gourmet Trading in Pasco had 600 workers banding fresh asparagus stalks together and packing them on 16 production lines.

Last week, a single line of about 20 workers was packing whatever fresh asparagus was delivered.

"We probably have four to five days left," said Allan Nerell, vice president of Gourmet's packing operations.

Farm employment languishes during the winter, ramps up in April and peaks in June, said Dean Schau, state regional labor economist in the Tri-Cities.

In May, there were 11,800 farm workers counted in Benton and Franklin counties, 100 more than a year earlier but still below farmers' needs.

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"Every day we are getting calls looking for workers," said Nina Pyle of Atkinson Staffing in Pasco.

The company, which has operated in Hermiston, Ore., for 15 years, provides transport workers and temporary labor for farms, food processors and light industrial jobs; and makes sure workers have proper documentation.

Christin Esquivel, owner of Jobs R Us, which connects field workers with farmers and orchardists, said people are needed to top onions and thin orchards.

More hop fields are being planted, vineyards need pruning, and there are raspberries and blueberries to pick.

"We are having a lot of trouble finding people," Esquivel said. "We have about 250 workers right now and need more."

As the cherry season swings into full gear, orchardists say they are squeaking by.

"I was nervous at one point and had a day I thought nothing was going to happen, but we are getting through," said Don Olmstead, a cherry grower in Grandview, Yakima County.

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