Where are the workers? A farm crisis in Washington

AUBURN, Wash. -- Washington’s farmers are at risk of losing millions of dollars in crop this season because once the harvest is ready, there are not enough workers to pick it.

It was a tough day for Auburn, Washington’s Mosby Farms: The day they disced 20 acres of zucchini back into the ground.

"What could have been a stellar season I can say was probably not," Rosella Mosby said.

She said her first-generation farm lost out on $100,000 because they didn’t have the workers to pick the zucchini in time. They were missing more than a fifth of their workforce  last season.

"We definitely depended on walk ins and I would say the last year, year and a half, our walk ins are half of what they were," she said.

This year, Mosby is worried the worker shortage will be even worse.

"Anybody who wants a job can get a job and agriculture is not always the first choice," she said.

In King County, the Mosbys are competing with jobs in warehouses and construction. She said they pay above minimum wage and even offer hourly bonuses for workers who stay through the season.

Still, fewer domestic workers are signing up to work and migrant workers are dropping off, too.

Tighter borders and the Trump administration’s talk on immigration play a part in the shortage, but Mosby said it’s not the whole story: "We had an agricultural labor issue long before this administration."

According to the Pew Research Center, from 2009 to 2014, 1 million people left the U.S. to return to Mexico, outpacing the number of Mexican immigrants trying to come in.

Without domestic workers to take their place, local farmers tasked with growing food for families across this country are suffering.

"Agriculture needs a stable, verifiable work source, period. And whether that is domestic or comes from abroad, we just need help," Mosby pointed out.

It’s an issue that’s caught the attention of some lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

"This is truly a crisis situation," Washington Congressman Dan Newhouse told Q13 News.

He said he hears the same concerns in central Washington and claims the worker shortage could cost the state millions of dollars a year.

"Not only do you lose the food that people need to eat, but the loss of jobs that harvest, pack, and process and ship that food product, and the income every step along the way," he said.

Newhouse is behind the push to streamline a program that's meant to be a lifeline for farm worker shortages. H-2A visas are for temporary agriculture workers, but applying for help is cumbersome. It involves four federal agencies and then additional state requirements. Newhouse's amendment would create one online portal for easier use.

But even if applying gets easier, the cost of hosting these workers will keep farms like Mosby's out of the mix. Under H-2A, Washington farmers are forced to pay a higher, adverse wage rate of $14.12 an hour, the second highest rate in the country. But that's not the burdensome part: They must also provide housing, meals and transportation for workers.

"Once you add in housing and their travel expenses, it just becomes so much more than you can afford," Mosby said.

She hopes reforms to H-2A come soon. Until then, she says the farm will run lean and she’s approaching every immigrant, refugee and youth work program for help.

"The new normal for you is going out and begging for people to come work for you," said Q13 News correspondent Simone Del Rosario.

"Yeah, well, keeping our fingers crossed and saying a lot of prayers," Mosby replied.