Wage hike hits western farmers


Western farmers faced with new wage increases say they are being stretched thin by competition from growers in other states who can produce the same crops for less.

Minimum wages rose on Jan. 1, the latest in annual increases dating to 1999 in Washington and 2003 in Oregon.

Washington's minimum jumped from $7.93 an hour to $8.07 and Oregon's went from $7.80 to $7.95 after voters passed referendums calling for annual adjustments based on inflation.

The California minimum went to $8 an hour, up from $7.50 last year through increases set by the Legislature.

But Idaho and several other states use the federal minimum wage, which will increase from $5.85 to $6.55 an hour on July 24 and to $7.25 a year after that.

Agricultural industry representatives say the increases in Oregon and Washington will be felt broadly.

"It increases your total labor costs, not just a portion," said Oregon Farm Bureau's Don Schellenberg. "And the problem is you don't have any way of mitigating that effect."

Washington's minimum wage is the nation's highest, followed by California and Oregon.

"It's nice to be number one, but ...," Rochester, Wash., Christmas tree grower Mark Steelhammer said.

The discrepancy in minimum wages creates an uneven playing field for the nation's farmers because farm prices generally do not fluctuate on a regional basis, industry representatives say.

Northwest Christmas tree growers, for example, compete with growers in North Carolina, the country's second-largest producer after Oregon, which has a minimum wage of $6.15 an hour and is much closer to lucrative Eastern markets.

"Higher labor costs and higher transportation costs are all a part of a squeeze that we're caught in," said Beavercreek, Ore., Christmas tree farmer Stan Low.

Internationally, West Coast growers have other problems.

Bloomberg News reported that under Mexico's new minimum wage scales workers nearest the U.S. border will receive just under $5 a day. Mexico's minimum wage varies by region and costs of living.

Recent higher prices for some commodities have helped offset increased costs for fuel, fertilizers and wages. But labor-intensive crops - those requiring hand-picking - haven't experienced price increases, Schellenberg said.

In those crops, Schellenberg said, labor is often half the cost of production, and the annual wage increase creates a significant burden.

Some farmers are moving away from crops that require hand-picking, such as strawberries, and moving to hardier crops that can be harvested by machine.

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