Fruit grower? Hotel keeper? Savior? Troublemaker?

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Valicoff at Whole Foods.jpg

Rob Valicoff doesn't look like a troublemaker, but that's what some folks in Yakima are saying these days. Others think of him as a savior of sorts. In any event, he was upbeat and self-deprecating this morning as he welcomed a gaggle of visitors to a new Whole Foods Market at Totem Lake.

Since the mid-1970s, the Valicoff family has been growing, packing and shipping fruit from the Yakima Valley: cherries, pears, apricots, peaches, apples. "Farming is a way of life," he says. The satisfaction comes from seeing kids eat his perfectly ripened peaches with big smiles on their faces and juice dripping down their chins.

The problem this year is finding enough people to pick those peaches. For many decades, there was an abundance of field labor in the valley, but that's changed. The Trump administration's tough new immigration policies, not to mention escalating tariff disputes, are hitting close to home.

The Washington Farm Labor Association, a labor recruiting firm based in Olympia, contracts with many growers to provide farm labor under the H-2A program (non-immigrant temporary labor visas). The grower agrees to pay for the workers' transportation, housing, and meals. (There's a 20-page booklet summarizing the program; you can read it here. Don't miss the dizzying flow chart on the last page.) At any rate, WAFLA takes care of the recruiting and the administrative details, and expect to hire over 15,000 workers this year.

Lodging, though, often presents the biggest problem, and here the growers are on their own. Homeland Security, understandably, wants to know exactly where the workers will be housed. and the state Department of Health wants to inspect the premises at least a month ahead of time. Renting scores of trailer-homes is less and less practical, but building acceptable bunk houses can cost up to $15,000 per bed. So last winter Valicoff bought a vacant 100-room hotel in Yakima for $3.2 million.

It's the former FairBridge Inn (a suite hotel on North First Avenue, on the outskirts of town). Now it's going to be home to several hundred seasonal workers. On-site laundry, daily breakfasts and dinners (plus sack lunches), TVs, and microwaves in the rooms, an ATM, access to health clinics, all paid for by the employers. WAFLA, which is also building farm worker housing in Chelan and Okanogan, has agreed to help manage the Yakima operation.

According to a WAFLA study, H-2A workers contributed close to $40 million from their private wages to the state's economy in 2015, the most recent year available, It's unknown how that would change if more farm workers were actually living in towns (whether Yakima, Sunnwide, or Prosser) rather than out in the country; WAFLA points out that very few cities in the state actually allow farm-worker housing.

In any event, Valicoff is no longer alone. Another grower, Ryan Dragoo of LFZ Orchards, whose 100-acre property is three miles outside of Selah, has drawn up plans to put up two houses at one end of his land where some 50 farm workers would live. Not so fast, according to the naysayers, who say they're concerned about traffic. Dragoo replies that he's putting in a new road--a paved one, mind you, not just dusty gravel--across his own land to the new structures,

But of course it's not about dusty gravel, or the sanctity of residential neighborhoods, or unverified complaints about unsanitary living conditions, it's that a vocal minority of Yakima Valley old-timers are nervous about the concentration of Spanish-speaking brown people. They won't admit it, so they attack Valicoff for whatever they can think of. It may not dissolve their animosity, but, sheesh, give those folks a ripe peach.

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This page contains a single entry by Cornichon published on August 14, 2018 5:00 PM.

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