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Rep. Dan Newhouse focuses on Washington state agri workforce dilemma

The agricultural sector in Washington, heavily reliant on migrant labor, faces a critical challenge due to a diminishing workforce. Central Washington lawmaker, Rep. Dan Newhouse, has proposed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act to address this issue by facilitating increased legal migrant guest workers, aiming to sustain the agricultural industry during its transition towards a more stable future.

Washington, recognized as the leading producer of non-citrus tree fruit in the U.S., particularly in areas surrounding Yakima and the Tri-Cities, depends significantly on this labor force. The state's 4th Congressional District, represented by Newhouse, contributes over half of the nation's apples and cherries.

With American workers exiting the agricultural field, the H2A Visa system has become a crucial yet flawed solution for farmers seeking to fill the labor void. The system, originally designed to favor domestic workers, now struggles to meet the actual needs of today's agricultural workforce, as noted by the Washington Fruit Tree Association President Jon DeVaney. The demand for H2A Visas has surged, yet the program's high costs limit its accessibility primarily to larger farms. In 2023, while over 311,000 H2A Visas were granted, this fell short of the number requested by farms, highlighting the persistent labor shortage despite the program's expansion.

The central region of Washington, encompassing Yakima, Benton, Franklin, and Grant counties, serves as the heart of the state's agricultural industry. This area, contrary to the state's stereotypical cool, rainy image, offers an arid climate conducive to tree fruit and wine production.

Despite these advantageous conditions, the agricultural workforce has experienced a significant decline, particularly in tree fruit labor, which peaked between 2012 and 2016 due to increased guest worker availability. The state has witnessed a loss of 2 million acres of farmland and 20 percent of its farms since 1997, with a substantial number of farms disappearing between 2012 and 2022. This labor shortage, exacerbated by various factors including new laws and the cost of living, poses a perennial challenge to farmers in Central Washington.


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