Jon DeVaney, the President of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association (WAFTA), is our Newsmaker Interview. DeVaney became involved with the tree fruit industry in 2009 after working with Congressman Doc Hastings and a few other agriculture policy jobs.
In his interview, DeVaney described the impact of the tree fruit (mostly apples, pears, and cherries) industry on Washington’s economy. He outlined how the Democrats’ overtime wage law has resulted in less money for both the farmers and the farm workers, and it caused some product to spoil on the ground and not make it to market. DeVaney explained that when Governor Jay Inslee rushed to pass his “carbon tax”(increasing gas by nearly 50 cents a gallon), his administration failed to include a method to exempt farmers as the law dictated. This is severely hurting many Washington farmers today. He provided an update on foreign trade and on the significant loss of Central Washington farmlands due to construction of large solar and wind farms. Finally, DeVaney shared his frustration with the consistent “new crop” of Puget Sound area lawmakers who know very little about the farming yet impose severe restrictions on the state’s agriculture community.
First, can you briefly tells us about the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, its members, and the industry’s impact on the state’s economy.
The WSTFA is a voluntary non-profit trade association representing the growers, packers, and marketers of tree fruits—primarily apples, pears, and cherries—here in Washington state. Our state is one of the best places in the world to grow these products, which is why tree fruit represents approximately 28% of the state’s total agricultural production value.
While economic impact varies from year to year with crop sizes, the total economic impact of the tree fruit industry is approximately $12 billion per year and there are more than 80,000 jobs supported by the production, packing, sales, and transportation of these crops.
How have the new state agriculture overtime wage laws impacted tree fruit farmers and workers? What changes would you like to see made to Washington’s wage regulations?
The phase-in of a requirement to pay time-and-a-half overtime in agriculture is very challenging for farming, where work timing is dictated by weather and nature rather than a regular 9-5 schedule or forty-hour week. Growers can’t pass on the added costs of overtime pay in a very competitive market, particularly when competitors either do not face this same requirement or have the cost offset by tax credits as is the case in Oregon and New York which are also phasing-in overtime pay.
The unfortunate financial reality is that instead of resulting in increased earnings for farmworkers, farmers must stop work when overtime would kick-in. Since most agricultural tasks are of the “now or never” variety and can’t be postponed until the following workweek, this means that many farmworkers are not able to work as many hours or earn as much as they did in previous seasons. It also means that some tasks simply can’t get done, and some food spoils before it can be harvested.
We have been encouraging the legislature to consider the approach taken in several other states that require overtime pay for agriculture and allow for a limited period of twelve weeks where higher threshold of fifty hours would apply before the time-and-a-half rate is required.
The state’s agriculture community is rightfully upset that the Inslee Administration failed to follow the law and exempt farmers from the costly impact of the state’s “carbon tax” which has added nearly 50 cents to the cost of a gallon of gas. Why is it important for Washington farmers to be exempt from this extra fee? What is currently being done to make the governor follow the law?
This is a good example of the dangers of charging full speed ahead with changes to laws or regulations without first figuring out the details of implementation. The legislature rightly acknowledged that the food and agriculture sector depends on fuels to produce and move products and is competing directly against producers in other states and countries not subject to these additional carbon reduction costs.
While agriculture was provided an exemption in the law, there was no clear mechanism in place to document and receive the exemption when the law took effect. The Department of Ecology has now formed a working group to try and identify and resolve these issues. However, it is the smallest and most financially vulnerable producers who face the biggest hurdles in documenting their agricultural use (they buy at the pump and not by the tanker-load) and who are floating the cost of these carbon surcharges while these questions are addressed.
Foreign trade has always been important for Washington State farmers. How are things today on the trade front? Are state laws impacting our farmers ability to compete in foreign markets?
We have been facing some export headwinds in recent years. Several important export markets have imposed retaliatory tariffs on agricultural products in response to the steel and aluminum tariffs imposed during the last administration and which remain in place. The recent announcement that India will be removing its retaliatory tariffs on apples is welcome news, and we greatly appreciate the efforts of our Congressional delegation to bring this about, but we won’t regain lost market share overnight.
Separate from trade policy complications are the disruptions to global supply chains. Agricultural exports rely on available ocean transportation capacity, and this has been more difficult to access in the wake of COVID-related changes. Closer to home, freight mobility from agricultural production areas to the Puget Sound ports and air cargo capacity at SeaTac continue to be challenging. Many of our shippers report that getting their products across the state can be more challenging than getting them the rest of the way across the Pacific. As a state, we need to make sure that our transportation system supports freight mobility and maintains connections to the port infrastructure that serves the entire region.
The Democrats have made it easier for multinational energy corporations to bypass local concerns as they seek to build large wind and solar farms. There are several proposed energy farms in Central Washington. How does this impact the availability of farmlands?
Solar projects are being proposed in many counties, often on prime agricultural lands. In recent years, the legislature has given increased authority to the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) to site these projects regardless of county moratoriums or local process. EFSEC was originally formed in 1970 to site thermal power plants, but, with the state’s help, has expanded its reach to other green energy projects.
This issue is complicated as agriculture lands are already cleared and flat, and oftentimes close to preexisting power grids, making them attractive as potential sites for new energy generation. It’s also important that farmers maintain personal property rights, which allow them to decide how they will utilize the lands they own. However, it’s concerning that state government has taken proactive steps to limit the voices of impacted parties in the decision-making process. Recently, farmers and environmental groups have expressed serious concern over the use of prime agricultural land for energy siting. Collaborative work needs to be done between all the parties to develop a working path for the future that will allow for new green power generation without sacrificing the lands that feed us.
Puget Sound area Democrat legislators, with very little or no agriculture experience, have recently passed several state laws which seriously impacted the agriculture. What can be done to educate urban lawmakers on how their policies impact the tree fruit farmers?
The efficiency and productivity of our American farmers and ranchers means that the vast majority of their fellow citizens—and their elected legislators—do not have direct experience with or as agricultural producers. However, the opportunity to engage their interest and understanding is as consumers of agricultural products where they “interact” with farmers at least three times per day.
The silver-lining to the COVID supply chain disruptions was that many people really began thinking about how food and other essential products are produced and make their way to the local supermarket. We are working to build on this interest by bringing legislators out to meet directly with growers in the orchard, to let them hear from the men and women who work in agriculture, and to understand the competing priorities that all growers must try to balance. Like farming itself, this is an ongoing process with a new “crop” of elected officials to engage every year.
If you want to learn more about the Washington State Tree Fruit Association or contact its staff, please visit the WSTFA website.