Off to the Yakima Valley in Washington to check out this year's apple crop. I'm hearing conflicting stories about whether there are enough pickers this year. Some farmers say they have enough, thanks in part of the homebuilding slump (subprime's silver lining: lower food prices!). Others fear the government's new, hard line on immigration will scare off a fair amount of undocumented workers.
No matter how you feel about that, last year Washington state tried to lure, or force, people on welfare and teenagers into the orchards with promises of pay up to $20 an hour. The response? Crickets chirping. As a result, some fruit fell to the ground and rotted (mostly peaches).
Farm work is hard work, but I think what's holding young people back from taking these jobs is that they no longer see it as honorable work. That's a shame. It's the same reason some kids I know would rather have no job than work at McDonald's. My kids have been told, "No job, no money. Enjoy sitting in your room." My first job was at Taco Bell at age 15, where I learned valuable lessons about the real world--although I will never be able to eat a Burrito Supreme again.
Back to apples, here's something I bet you didn't expect to hear. I've found a farmer who says the government guest worker program is working! Under the program farmers have to apply to the government for a certain amount of workers (a painful, bureaucratic process that still entails snail mail in 2007!), then pay the round-trip transportation costs from Mexico, plus pay to house the workers here. So there are some significant costs for a stable, legal supply of workers. I'll find out how well it's working and report live from Wapato, WA on Wednesday.
I have to say I've never had more fun, or learned so much, since starting these weekly farm reports. All business stories these days lead to agriculture: energy, commodities, inflation, the consumer, real estate, immigration, health.
The best part is meeting the farmers. Sure, a few complain regularly that they're "just not gonna make it this year" (all the while driving brand new trucks), and some consider farm subsidies a birthright. But that's the exception. As a rule, farmers are about as down to earth (literally) as you can get, a living link to this country's Founders. And they're nice. Look, they have to be nice to put up with me barging in with a camera crew and a satellite truck asking lots of questions about "margins."
By the way, I am trying to "brand" (ha!) my farm reports. I am looking for a two or three word title that is catchy without being too cute. I think "Farmer Jane" is too cute. Feel free to email me with suggestions at email@example.com. If I pick yours, I'll give you on-air credit when we debut the new brand.
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