Ag labor is the top issue for many agricultural operations across the Pacific Northwest, but many in the farming community feel lawmakers in D.C. continue to kick the problem down the road. While fruits and vegetables typically come to mind when talking about Ag labor, Rick Naerebout, CEO of the Idaho Dairyman’s Association, says their industry is also extremely dependent on farm workers. Despite claims that an increased pay rate would encourage more workers to seek employment on the farm, he says pay is not the issue.
He pointed out that Idaho’s Adverse Effect Wage Rate for 2021 is $14.50 an hour. And he added dairies across Idaho pay above $15 an hour, saying, “Ag workers, dairy workers, they out pay the jobs you can find on main street in any given rural town. So, pay has not been the issue, it’s the willingness of a domestic workforce to get out there and do some of these tougher jobs. And there’s just not a willingness from our domestic workforce for a variety of reasons.”
Washington and Oregon have the highest “Ag minimum wage” in the country at $16.34 an hour. So, what happens if meaningful Ag labor reform doesn’t take place in D.C.? Naerebout says the dairy sector will continue to see an escalation of wages, and, “We’ll continue to not see a domestic workforce come in to fill these jobs and we’ll continue to fight among ourselves for the few workers we can get, and we’ll continue to see wages increase and that just puts economic pressure on the smaller operations and you will see an increase in consolidation, not just of dairy, but of all Ag operations. You’re going to drive more consolidation as you put that financial pressure on the smaller producers.”
From 2016 to 2021, the AEWR increased 25 percent in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, while Oregon and Washington’s rate increased 22 percent.