Potato Growers Facing Labor Shortage

Published online: Sep 13, 2006 PGI
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BLACKFOOT, ID -- The Potato Growers of Idaho acknowledges potato growers are having a hard time finding workers for the harvest this season.

According to the Idaho Department of Commerce and Labor (IDCL), the number of farm workers in Idaho has decreased by 18 percent in some areas.

"Many growers are wondering where they will find the manpower they need this year," said Keith Esplin, executive director of PGI.

Idaho has seen record non-farm job growth over the past few years. According to the IDCL, 31,100 new non-farm jobs have been created in Idaho in the past 12 months, and some job sectors, like construction, have seen increases as high as 16 percent.

"Every year it seems to get harder and harder to find help, especially in the Teton Valley where many potential laborers can get jobs working construction in Jackson, Wyoming," said Jack Hoopes, a seed grower from the Teton Valley.

The unemployment rate in Idaho was 3.3 percent in August according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is only a tenth of a percent higher than the record low set in March of this year. It is the 16th straight month of unemployment rates below 4 percent, which is considered by most economists to be full employment.

"A low availability of workers in general can really hurt growers," said Esplin. "Most growers can't afford to pay the higher wages offered in other sectors."

In May the Senate passed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006. This included Agjobs, an initiative sponsored by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, that provides a way for immigrants to gain legal status to work in the agricultural industry which depends heavily on migrant workers.

The immigration reform bill that passed the House of Representatives focuses primarily on border security, which is also part of the Senate bill, but the House version does not address the issue of jobs in agriculture. With the labor shortages growers are facing, PGI believes appropriate legislation, such as Agjobs, is needed to keep the industry going. However, this does not look likely, as a conference committee has not been formed to work out the differences between the House and Senate bills.

Many jobs related to the harvest are still available. Growers are seeking truck drivers, sorters cellar workers and other positions. Anyone interested in working during harvest is encouraged to contact the nearest Idaho Job Service office or a local potato grower.