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Hops growers in Yakima Valley face worker shortage

Normally, Joel Cervantes would be plowing hop yards, repairing equipment or watering down the dusty roadways of Double R Hop Ranches.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Normally, Joel Cervantes would be plowing hop yards, repairing equipment or watering down the dusty roadways of Double R Hop Ranches.

But with seasonal workers scarce across the Yakima Valley, Cervantes last week unloaded hop vines by hand into the picking machine, an exhausting, dusty, entry-level task.

"Last year it wasn't this bad," said Cervantes, 25. "I didn't unload last year."

The Yakima Herald-Republic ( reported Monday that the scarcity of agricultural workers, many years a headache for the apple industry, now is affecting the Yakima Valley's plentiful hop harvest.

To keep up with the surging growth of a national craft beer industry that opens a brewery a day, Washington commercial growers, located exclusively in the Yakima Valley, boosted their hop acreage by 7 percent and expect the largest crop in five years. That means more vines to cut and cones to process.

"I guess I consider the largest hurdle right now labor," said Kevin Riel, a fourth-generation partner in his family's hop farm, Double R, which he manages with brother Keith and cousin Steve.

Riel has about 55 workers, five or 10 shy of what he would consider a full staff for his acreage that increased 5 percent over last year. To keep up with the work, he asks his foreman and other experienced veterans to perform more mundane tasks usually assigned to new hires. Riel also leaves the office to drive tractors and dump hops into the kiln.

That's fine for a while, but Riel and his seasoned employees eventually need to prepare for next year by disking fields and repairing equipment.

To attract help, Riel has raised wages and offers bonuses for those who stay throughout the harvest. During full production, a baler — who presses dried cones into bales for shipping — makes more than $300 per day.

The incentives help, but Riel is still short.

"Higher wages don't always fix this," he said.

Orchardists have been complaining for years about the scarcity of seasonal workers.

Last September, farmers reported an 8.5 percent shortage of employees in a survey by the state Employment Security Department. Most industry officials expect the demand to be even higher this year, especially after apple growers forecast a record crop of 140 million boxes.

Yakima Valley growers, who produce 77 percent of the nation's hops, are expecting a 55.3 million-pound harvest this year, the highest haul since production peaked in 2009 at 75 million pounds, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey.

The hop workforce hardly holds a candle to the massive number of people required to harvest apples. In 2012, apples had 45,000 seasonal workers, about two-thirds of the state's entire seasonal agricultural pool. Hops employed 2,337 workers.

Fruit growers can offer prospective workers' certain perks, such as housing, that many hop growers can't.

As a result, few hop growers employ foreign workers through the federal government's H-2A temporary work visa program.

Making matters worse, brewers nowadays order hops that have a shorter harvest window, said Anne George of the Washington Hops Commission.

The craft beer industry grew by 20 percent in 2013 when measured in retail sales, and new breweries opened at a rate of one a day in the United States, according to the Brewers Association.