Farm jobs up 7% in 2009

The Bellingham Business Journal

Washington state produced a bumper crop of agricultural jobs in 2009, according to a new report by the Employment Security Department.

Employment in agriculture increased 7 percent last year, to 102,530 jobs, according to the report. Agricultural employment is a combination of seasonal and non-seasonal jobs, but the increase in 2009 was driven almost entirely by seasonal work in orchards.

“During a tough year for the economy, the agricultural industry was a bright spot,” said Employment Security Commissioner Karen Lee.

Deep job cuts in construction and manufacturing likely increased the pool of workers for agricultural jobs, while crop sizes, crop quality and mild harvest weather increased demand for those workers. The mild weather conditions were ideal for pruning activities, increasing demand for workers in apple, cherry and pear orchards.

More than one-quarter of all agricultural jobs were in Yakima County (26 percent), followed by the Chelan-Douglas county area (12 percent) and the Benton-Franklin county area (11 percent).

Whatcom County accounted for 3 percent of total agricultural jobs in the state. The highest monthly employment locally occurred in July, with 5,810 people employed.

Though the demand for labor was higher last year, wages were actually down between 4 and 10 percent for apple, cherry and pear harvests. That’s because the supply of seasonal labor increased even more than labor demand, according to the report.

More work didn’t equate to longer hours. In fact, with so many workers available, the average farm laborer worked about 10 percent fewer hours last year.

Even with the additional work, more farm workers collected unemployment benefits in 2009. According to the report, this is likely due to unemployed workers from other industries taking agricultural jobs and pushing out existing workers. The number of agricultural workers collecting unemployment benefits was 30 percent higher than in 2008 and 40 percent higher than in 2007.

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