The September 10 edition of Capital Press, the agriculture newspaper for the West Coast, provided a useful perspective on Sakuma Farms and the labor issues surrounding the farm for the past two years. Summarizing the difficult issues involved, the reporter quoted Steve Sakuma , “whose vision for his heirs depends on consumers buying berries, asks: ‘The big question is, Do you want your food grown in the United States or not?’”
The arrival of the July 4th Holiday marked the completion of the 2014 strawberry harvest and another outpouring of community support for Sakuma Brothers Farms. Mother Nature worked her magic this season with near perfect growing conditions that helped develop beautiful, great tasting berries that were in high demand among consumers stopping at the Market Stand or shopping in numerous grocery stores locally and beyond.
Clearly based on recent public displays of support, the local community understands and appreciates the efforts by the Sakuma family over the past year to provide workers with jobs that provide some of the industry’s highest wages and free housing. The growing support from the community is real, it is broad and growing. Given this, last week the company opened up one of the last strawberry fields to the public to pick their own berries for free as a small sign of appreciation for their support. Even this gesture of kindness by the company to support the community was met with more court actions by the union activists.
Hiring local workers was the top priority for Sakuma Brothers Farms as the season progressed and more berries ripened for picking. Despite continued antics by the labor activists to attempt to destroy the Sakuma family’s reputation, more than 150 local pickers were hired, the harvest progressed smoothly and demand for berries was strong.
More good news occurred just prior to the start of the holiday weekend when a Washington State Superior Court judge denied a request by the union front group to force Sakuma Brothers Farms to immediately hire workers for the upcoming blueberry harvest and house their families in the company’s free housing. Hiring for the blueberry season will occur later in the month as the blueberry harvest nears.
The July 4th holiday provided local residents in Skagit Valley another opportunity to show their support for Sakuma Brothers Farms. At the Logger Rodeo Parade in Sedro-Woolley, the longest running Fourth of July celebration in Washington State, the Farm Bureau’s parade entry supported Sakuma Brothers Farms. Behind a cavalcade of trucks and tractors, farmers, families and supporters marched together to demonstrate their support for Sakuma Brothers Farms and were cheered on by thousands along the parade route.
While the company has made numerous changes to the way it does business, the union front group continues to make unrealistic demands that fail to recognize the efforts of the company. Their resistance to work with Sakuma Brothers Farms and their continued calls for a boycott are clearly frustrating the local community.
Please feel free to download and pass on the pdf of this newsletter:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
BURLINGTON, WA (June 3, 2014) – Despite a worsening labor shortage in Washington State, Sakuma Brothers Farms announced today that it has decided to not participate in the federal government’s H-2A Guest Worker program in 2014. The company had applied for the program but notified the federal government over the weekend that it has decided to not participate.
“The last year was a very difficult year for our family, our family business and our community. Since the season ended, our family met with a number of community leaders and we decided it was best for our community to see if we could meet our farm labor requirements by hiring domestic workers for the upcoming season,” said Steve Sakuma, of Sakuma Brothers Family Business. He added, “We recognize that it is a risk to go in this direction given that the H-2A program provided us a safety net for securing a labor force but we are hopeful that working with local community farm worker advocates we will be able to hire the work force we need.”
Washington State agriculture is facing continued shortages of able, willing, qualified and eligible workers. Sakuma Brothers had to leave more than 900,000 pounds of berries unpicked in the fields in the last two years because it did not have enough labor to pick the highly-perishable berries which necessitated its decision to participate in the federal government’s H-2A guest worker program. While the Guest Worker program provided the company with a stable supply of workers last year, it caused some unrest in the community. Even though Sakuma Brothers accounted for less than one percent of all the guest workers employed in the State of Washington in 2013, people who opposed the H-2A program protested Sakuma’s involvement.
“It was sobering to witness the protests against our family-owned business and hear calls for a boycott against our berries,” said Sakuma. He added, “But, even though we have been in business for nearly 80 years, we listened to our critics and we recognized that we could do better.
Since the end of harvest last year, Sakuma Brothers has taken a number of steps to improve the way it does business as part of its commitment to continuous improvement including:
• Improved Housing – The Company has invested thousands of dollars to upgrade its worker housing units, centralized shower/restroom facilities and worker housing grounds.
• Supervisor Training – The Company trained every supervisor and farm manager to ensure they can communicate effectively and manage responsibly.
• Enhanced Food Security – The Company has improved security throughout all its properties to protect the safety of its food and keep its employees safe and secure.
By far, the biggest news to many in the community is Sakuma’s decision to not participate in the H-2A program in 2014. Given the compressed time period to identify and hire employees, Sakuma Brothers will work with various Skagit County community groups to help recruit local workers to apply for employment to pick berries. The minimum wage for all berry pickers will be $11.87 per hour for those who do not exceed this per hour guarantee through piece rate calculations, as workers will be paid the higher of the two calculations. The $11.87 minimum wage is the same wage set by the federal government for Washington State for all H2A foreign and domestic workers in corresponding employment. It is also higher than the Washington State Minimum Wage, currently at $9.32.
“Our family hopes the community appreciates the efforts we have made to respond to our critics. It is the right approach for local farm workers, the community and one that will enable our family to remain in business,” said Sakuma. He added, “The reality is that farmers, farm workers and our community must come together and focus our energies where they are needed most and work together to secure the passage of real comprehensive immigration reform by our leaders in Washington, D.C.”
The Sakuma family business is committed to working with local farm worker support groups to engage the Washington State Congressional Delegation to seek a solution for a legal and stable workforce.
A Message to our Detractors: Let’s work together to improve the plight of the undocumented domestic worker
The labor dispute saga continues as we continue into another harvest season; our focus has not changed, to grow a good crop and to harvest a good crop. Sounds like a simple solution and 50 years ago it was a much simpler solution. When our parent’s generation farmed they struggled through the prejudices of the aftermath of WWII and they successfully built a credible business, which they have passed to our generation. Our generation has worked within a supportive community and rural setting, although living on the I-5 corridor has brought a number of challenges. The growth in our community has changed the demographics of our community and the continued growth of the regulatory oversight within the farming industry has changed the farming playing field immensely. Add to this playing field the ever increasing modern technology of information transfer and every business is faced with constant oversight. It is my observation that the ground rules were much simpler in the 20th century; where truth was supported by fact and a reputation was earned and not erroneously thrust upon a person or organization. The question I would have for today’s readers is “where does abuse stop and personal responsibility begin?” The concept of: “it is on the internet, it must be true!” has clouded this line considerably.
Our family business continues to receive negative inputs via email, blogs, facebook, published material, and chanting crowds about how we abuse our workers and the inequity of using the H2A program to displace our domestic work force. Let me take this opportunity to give you our basic strategy; it is simply to grow a good crop and to harvest a good crop so we can successfully pass this family business down to our next generation, into perpetuity. I understand your versions of our family business strategy and I can actually understand how you arrived at your conclusions. It is my belief, until you understand the complexities of operating within the agriculture industry and the complexities of operating within a family business you will not be able to discern clearly where abuse stops and where personal responsibility starts within our family business. I am not asking you to change your position, nor your tactics; as I personally spent 26 years in the Army fighting to make sure we all have the rights you are exercising. My only ask is that you consider taking a position that places the farmer and the farm worker in a win – win scenario and not in an adversarial position; neither of us will survive without each other.
The farmer and the farm worker have the same desired outcomes; we both want stability, we both want all employees to have the legal right to work, and we both want a fair wage and a positive work environment. Our family business is committed to do our part. If you truly support the plight of the undocumented farm worker; seek immigration reform with your federal delegation. Specifically, demand a legal path to work for the undocumented domestic worker.
On Monday, April 21 my son Ryan and I attended the forum at Skagit Public Utilities District put on by the Latino Civic Alliance. The purpose of this meeting, one of a series conducted by this valuable group, was to help build understanding around the issues of farm labor. The concerns about the H2A guest worker program were a primary focus. This is the program that we used for the first time last year and which triggered the activism against our farm.
There were many in the audience who wanted to become informed citizens and there were some who had concerns about the current systems. As the Skagit Valley Herald news article about this meeting pointed out, sometimes it was hard for those inside to hear the speakers for the noisy protest going on outside. This protest, with Sakuma as the primary target, involved mostly Western Washington University students, who I believe are sincerely interested in improving the conditions for farm workers.
Unfortunately, those outside did not come inside and and take the opportunity to respectfully learn about these challenging issues. While I applaud those who have opinions to express and who get involved in working for improvements, it also seems that some effort should be made to learn from all sides and to get a basic understanding of the situation. Nina Martinez, the Vice Chair of the Latino Civic Alliance administered a respectful, open and focused meeting that approached problem solving in a peaceful and collaborative manner. Great job!
By the way, I’m new to this blogging thing and this is my first attempt. But I think it is important that the community and those interested in solving the issues of farm workers hear from all perspectives. Particularly since our farm, without any intention or desire on our part, has been brought into the forefront of this issue.
Thanks for your interest.
Union front groups and worker centers organizing the boycotts and labor action against Sakuma have loudly disputed that we and other farmers are facing labor shortages. Over the past two years Sakuma has lost over 900,000 pounds of berries due to a shortage of farm labor, which is why Sakuma in 2013 decided to bring in guest workers under the H2A guest worker program. This program REQUIRES that domestic workers who are able, willing, capable and eligible be hired before guest workers can be brought in. If we could find enough who qualify, we would definitely not bring the guest workers.
For those who dispute our statements that there is a shortage of farm workers, we refer you to the Yakima Valley Herald, which in an April 22, 2014 story, indicated that the shortage of the past few years is become clear even earlier than before.
The labor shortage, which has been worsening the past few years, has resulted in more and more farmers turning to the H2A guest worker program–the program so opposed by union front groups and which prompted the activity against Sakuma. The article points out:
in 2006, growers hired 814 foreign employees statewide through the H-2A visa. In 2013, they hired 6,194 workers.
Here are a few key excerpts:
State economists last month reported a 5.2 percent agricultural labor shortage — the first time since 2008 that March showed a shortage at all — fueling concerns that the lack of orchard workers is worsening.
The shortage is calculated based on how many workers can be recruited compared to the number that growers actually sought. For example, a grower who wants 20 workers but can find only 19 would report a 5 percent shortage.
Industry groups suspect the labor gap could get worse this year.
Officials estimates aren’t due until summer, but growers are whispering of another record apple crop, perhaps topping the 130 million boxes of 2012.
“If we have a bigger crop, then, yeah, we’re going to need more people to pick it,” Kelly said. “Are they going to be there or not is the huge question.”
To make up for it, growers are increasingly turning to foreign guest workers through the federal H-2A visa program, which allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers on short-term contracts as long as they can demonstrate that no domestic laborers wanted the jobs.
In 2006, growers hired 814 foreign employees statewide through the H-2A visa. In 2013, they hired 6,194 workers.
This year for the first time, growers asked for contracts that start in January for pruning help, said Dan Fazio, executive director of the Washington State Farm Labor Association, which represents more than half the H-2A employees in the state.
“We’ve never had anyone cross workers that early,” he said.
When labor activists launched their campaign against the federal guest worker program by targeting Sakuma Brothers Farm, it left many confused and wondering this family and their farm operations. We encourage you to get to know the Sakuma family and their remarkable history–truly a Japanese-American success story.
You can download the pdf here–please forward it on to all those interested in knowing the truth about the Sakuma family.
The story can also be found on this website on the menu bar above.
Current board of directors of Sakuma Brothers Farm.
The following guest opinion, published in Whatcom County publications, was written by Henry Bierlink, Executive Director of the widely-respected Farm Friends representing the Whatcom County farming community. Bierlink states: “It is perplexing that Sakuma’s are being made to appear as the adversary of the farm workers. Those of us who know the Sakuma family understand them to be careful, caring, and respectful farmers and employers.” He makes it clear that this action is a direct result of Sakuma’s opting to use the federal legal guest worker program, a program opposed by farm labor organizers.
Recent protests by Families United for Justice and some WWU students on behalf of local farmworkers caught plenty attention from local farmers. We have closely followed the travails at Sakuma Brothers since fall. We fully understand the farm labor issues presented by farm workers and their advocates need to be addressed.
Labor is a necessary component of agriculture. The crops need to be picked and packed. Cows need to be milked. Cattle fed. Machines provide significant help to all these needs but someone needs to operate them, maintain them, and manufacture them.
No farmer denies the right for farm workers to expect a fair wage, safe working conditions, and decent housing. To fail on any of those standards clearly indicates an unsustainable situation. The labor market will ultimately weed out any farmer who cannot provide a safe and fair place for farm workers. On top of that, there are countless federal and state regulations that work to ensure that workers are provided for.
While farmers may rail about how some of these laws are applied we don’t debate that they are necessary to check those who are inclined to ignore the rights and protection of farm workers.
It is perplexing that Sakuma’s are being made to appear as the adversary of the farm workers. Those of us who know the Sakuma family understand them to be careful, caring, and respectful farmers and employers. They have a multi-faceted operation in northern Skagit County and pack many of the berries produced here in Whatcom. We can’t know how every specific dealing with farm workers was handled. Undoubtedly farm managers don’t manage every situation perfectly. But to demonize their farm, family and their customers is simply wrong, irresponsible, and intentionally divisive. Watching a family that endured the WWII internment camps go through another fear-based torment is painful.
Farmers with significant labor needs have essentially two options to meet the labor demands on their farms:
- Option one: Hire the existing agriculture labor force, many of whom are not work authorized, and risk fines/penalties or worse.
- Option two: Use the federal H-2A guest worker program. The program is expensive and difficult to use. It requires farmers to recruit, transport, and house foreign workers and guarantee pay for them at a wage set by the federal government – currently $12/hr. It also requires that all other local workers’ wages at the farm match that standard.
Sakuma’s were the first local grower to choose the second option. They recognized the labor shortage, tried other means to attract workers but in the end went through the stringent process of applying for guest workers through the federal program. This demands planning months in advance and ensuring that all requirements under the law are met. It is a huge investment in trying to provide fairness to both local and imported workers.
Unfortunately Families United for Justice and local sympathizers have used this very public action by Sakumas to aggravate the ever-present tension that exists between employers and employees. We question why anyone would support efforts to polarize communities rather than to unite them. Farmers are willing to engage in responsible discussions of the issues surrounding labor supply, fair wages, working conditions, housing, and whatever issues are encompassed in our farm labor practices.
Contact Whatcom Farm Friends at 360.354.1337 or at firstname.lastname@example.org if your group wants to hear more about our perspectives. We welcome a respectful dialogue with farm workers and their advocates in the spirit of mutual problem solving. We resist the temptation to demagogue complex issues like farm labor and expect the same from others.
The Facts Behind the Misguided Effort to Boycott Sakuma Brothers Farms
Union front groups like Familias Unidas have been distributing fliers in the region calling for a boycott in a misguided attempt that only harms the people who work at Sakuma Brothers Farms. What they are saying about Sakuma Brothers Farms is simply not true and we want you to know the facts.
1. We are not a “corporate farm.” Sakuma Brothers is a family-owned business comprised of members of the Sakuma family. This family began growing strawberries in Burlington in 1935. Six sons served the US during WWII while their parents, wives and children were interned in camps. Read more about the family history on www.sakumafarms.com.
2. Union front groups – not farm workers – are behind this action. While posing as a farm worker organization, the boycott, strike and other labor actions are planned and coordinated by Rosalinda Guillen, a former United Farm Worker union organizer.
3. Sakuma Brothers Farms berry pickers – both foreign and domestic – are paid a minimum of $11.87 per hour. Accusations of low pay, racial harassment, demanding people to work while sick are absolute lies. In 2013, by federal law we paid $12 per hour minimum wage to our berry pickers – both foreign and domestic – with many workers earning more than that based on performance. In 2014 the federal government has set the AEWR minimum wage for our labor contract at $11.87 per hour – more than $2.50 per hour higher than the State of Washington’s minimum wage of $9.32.
4. The workers requested a security firm for protection. Union front groups including those from outside our community were entering the worker’s housing and intimidating them in an effort to keep the workers from doing their jobs. It was our workers who requested security for their protection from the activists and we complied. The judge ordered restrictions on where the security personnel could be located and we fully complied.
5. The union front group rejected mediation. A respected, experienced labor negotiator was brought in to mediate between the activists and farm management. He will verify that it was the activists who broke off negotiations and not us. It is simply a lie to claim we broke off mediation.
6. We never retaliated against striking workers. Familias Unidas says Sakuma’s retaliated against workers for striking. This is yet another lie! One of the leaders of the union front group was fired last year because he was arrested after a domestic violence incident in our ranch housing and given a five year no-contact order against his wife who was also living in our housing. Our employment policy is very clear and it is our responsibility to provide a safe housing environment. Despite the arrest record (Skagit County Sheriff case C00062705) the leaders continue to lie about this incident claiming he was fired in retaliation.
Why are these union front groups targeting Sakuma Farms?
The fact is that unions and their phony front groups are opposed to the Federal Government’s H-2A Guest Worker program and are spreading false information about Sakuma Brothers Farms in an attempt to stop us from using it. They claim that the H-2A program took jobs away from domestic workers but that simply is not true. The Federal Government’s H-2A regulations require the hiring of any domestic U.S. worker who is willing, ready and able to perform the job requirements. In other words, we cannot nor would we deny a qualified domestic U.S. worker the opportunity to work.
The H-2A program allows farms to bring in legal, documented workers for a season under strict contracts and guidelines to supplement a domestic labor shortage. Sakuma Brothers Farms chose to use this program because in the two previous years more than 900,000 pounds of berries were left in the field unpicked because we suffered a shortage of domestic workers. Because this program addresses this labor shortage, unions and their phony front groups oppose it believing it reduces their leverage. As one of the larger agricultural operations in this region to participate in the H-2A Guest Worker Program, Sakuma Brothers Farms has been targeted in an attempt to make other farms think twice before participating in this program to access these legal workers.
Sakuma Brother’s future depends on a legal, reliable and cost-effective work force. As we have stated many times, the H-2A program is not the best solution, but it is the only option currently available from the government that helps our company and our nation’s agricultural industry address the ongoing labor shortage. We encourage those interested in this issue to work with our federal legislators to enact immigration reform that will ease the labor shortage and provide stability for farms like ours.