Get to know the real story of the Sakuma family

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.

Sakuma photos-historical.046

Whatcom Farm Community Publicly Supports Sakuma

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 farmfriends@wcfarmfriends.com 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.

Link to published opinion in Lynden Tribune April 9 edition

Farm Friends website: http://www.wcfarmfriends.com/go/site/1579/

Boycott Sakuma? Get the Facts.

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.

 

“Local Kids Crew” Berry Picking Comes to an End at Sakuma Farms

SAKUMA BROTHER FARMS ENDS 68-YEAR-OLD “LOCAL KIDS CREW” JOB PROGRAM

Labor Shortage, Protests, Requirements of Guest Worker Program Make Hiring Local Youths Unworkable

Sakuma Brother’s Berry Farm, one of the largest berry farm operations in northwest Washington, announced that it is ending a nearly seventy-year old program that provided summer employment opportunities for Skagit County youth.

“This is the end of a legacy,” said Sakuma CEO Steven Sakuma. “It is with deep regret we have come to realization that under current conditions we simply can’t afford to hire these young people anymore.”

The labor shortage facing agriculture throughout the United States has been well-documented.  In 2012, Sakuma Brothers experienced a labor shortage resulting in over 400,000 pounds of berries left unpicked because the company did not have enough workers available to pick the crop. Without the assurance of sufficient domestic workers for the 2013 season, including local workers and those traveling from California and others states, the company opted to participate for the first time in the Federal Government’s Guest Worker program known as H2A. The Obama Administration administers this program to enable farmers to employ legal workers living outside the country, based on very specific requirements. The farm contracted for 160 guest workers for the blueberry and blackberry harvest, believing enough local and domestic workers would be available to pick strawberries, the first harvest of the season.

The company had hoped to harvest the 2013 strawberry crop without the use of H2A workers but discovered it did not have enough domestic labor and ended up leaving more than 500,000 pounds of strawberries unpicked.

Sakuma Brothers’ decision to bring in legal guest workers was opposed by local activists who spread false information about the company.  While labor activists claimed they were trying to protect jobs for domestic workers, the H2A program specifically prohibits the displacement of domestic workers including local and migrant workers.

As a result of the targeted attacks and disruption of the domestic workforce, Sakuma Brothers’ management concluded it had no choice but to expand the use of the Guest Worker program to include all crops including strawberries in 2014. Under this federal program, guest workers and domestic workers are to be treated the same and work under the same contract. This means that all Sakuma strawberry pickers will be paid a minimum of $11.87 per hour.

This is the required minimum wage to be paid under the H2A program. It is considerably higher than the state’s minimum wage of $9.32 per hour and the federal minimum wage of $7.25. It is also higher than the minimum wage set by the program for other states such as California which have lower minimum wage requirements than Washington.

“Unfortunately, these requirements make it impossible for us to continue to hire local kids,” said Steve Sakuma. He noted that the average kid crew picker harvests 86 pounds per day of strawberries. To meet the federal minimum wage requirement each picker would have to harvest 360 or more pounds per day. Said Sakuma, “That gap is just too much for us to support financially so we reluctantly decided we can no longer hire these young workers.”

Many adults throughout Western Washington recall picking berries at an early age. The “kid crew” employed by Sakuma consisted mostly of 12 to 16 year old teenagers from local communities whose parents typically dropped them off at 6 a.m. and picked them up around noon. Sakuma noted that graduates of their Local Kid Crew were offered positions at the farm, processing facility and Sakuma Brothers Market Stand.

Stating that farming depends on a stable, legal and cost-effective workforce, Sakuma reiterated that without immigration reform to help assure a legal domestic work force it was likely more farmers would turn to the H2A program. The opposition of labor activists to this program further disrupts the domestic worker opportunities creating unintended consequences such as lost opportunities for local youth.

 Link to Sakuma Message to the Community about the Local Kids Crew published in the Skagit Valley Herald March 27, 2014.

 

End of Season Message from Sakuma Brothers Farm

With the 2013 harvest season winding down this week, we wanted to take this opportunity to provide you with a brief review of the season. First, we want to thank so many people who have supported our company and purchased our berries this year. Your steadfast support reminds us all of what a special community we live in.

From a production standpoint, this year was a very good year for growing berries. The challenge once again was finding a supply of workers needed to harvest the berries. In the past year and a half, our company has been forced to leave nearly 500,000 pounds of berries unpicked because we did not have enough workers necessary for harvest. The media has clearly documented the shortage of agricultural workers throughout the United States and Skagit County was not immune from this problem. In fact, prior to the start of this year’s harvest, we advertised and promoted job opportunities but did not receive enough job applications which forced us to make the decision to participate in the H-2A Guest Worker program for the first time in our company’s history.

Of course, this decision made us a target of a local labor committee which claimed there was labor unrest occurring at our company. Through their pickets, calls for strikes and occasional marches, one could have assumed that our harvest was impossible to complete. However, that was not the case. Our harvest continued throughout the season. In fact, during the peak of the harvest – which was simultaneous to the peak of the labor committee’s efforts to generate negative media attention against Sakuma Brothers Farms – enough workers continued on the job that we were able to finish the berry harvest.

This is a critically important point to note about our company. Most of our local and traveling domestic berry pickers continued to work for us picking berries despite heavy intimidation and pressure by the local labor committee to walk off the job. In fact, the intimidation and threats made by the labor activists to our workers were so great that we hired private security officers due to the workers concern about their personal safety.

It has been difficult to watch the unwarranted actions of the mostly out-of-town activists criticize our family and condemn our business. The organizers continue to call for a boycott of our berries and lie to the media in an effort to generate fear and confusion among our domestic workers and our customers. They repeatedly claimed domestic workers would lose their jobs to the H-2A workers and that they would receive lower pay than the H-2A workers. The actions of our company throughout the year proved both of these allegations to be false!

In fact, federal law required that we must first hire every domestic worker who is able, willing and qualified. And, we paid all seasonal berry pickers – both foreign and domestic workers – a guaranteed $12 per hour plus an incentivized piece rate and housing. The fact that such a large number of workers continued working in our fields confirms we are in full compliance with the program’s requirements.

As we wind down the activities this year, we realize that Sakuma Brothers Farms is one of a decreasing number of farms that depend greatly on the manual picking of our berries. Many farming operations in our region and throughout the country have converted to crops more suitable for mechanical harvesting in an effort to eliminate their labor shortages and related problems. While we continue to plan on having jobs available for berry pickers in the years to come, we are greatly concerned that the unintended consequences of the labor activists will be to further decrease the employment opportunities for our workers.

In closing, thank you for your expressions of support throughout the trying year. In particular, thank you for seeking the truth about this situation. Our gratitude cannot be adequately expressed. Our very best wishes to you and yours this holiday season.

Sincerely,

Sakuma Brothers

Blogs and News Stories Continue to Get the Sakuma Story Wrong

Blood, Sweat and Berries Blog’s search for justice doesn’t appear to include telling the truth

We appreciate the editor of the blog Blood, Sweat and Berries, publishing a disclaimer that the facts in the article published on this blog may not be verified. Indeed, the report provided by Scott Hines, is unfortunately filled with numerous factual errors, many of which could easily have been verified.

Fact 1: Ramon Torres was fired from Sakuma Farms in compliance with the farm’s policy of providing a safe working and living environment. The following  information was published on Sakumafacts.com on October 3 and thus completely available for Mr. Hines to know:

Ramon was arrested by Skagit County Sheriffs on August 30th (Case Number C00062705) at the farm workers camp at Sakuma Brothers Farms.  According to the arrest report, Torres had pushed his wife Deanna Torres as well as “hit her and pulled the previous day.”  We take domestic violence very seriously, especially spousal abuse in our housing.  Due to safety concerns for all workers and people in the camp, we had no choice but terminate him and remove him from the camp. Our society has witnessed too many deadly instances when domestic violence and spousal abuse were ignored or covered up.  The fact is that Ramon Torres was arrested for assaulting his wife in the presence of others and, thus, was considered a threat to the entire camp.

Fact 2: If Sakuma Farms paid workers what Mr. Torres is claiming, we would be violating federal law and face serious consequences.

The facts are very clear, and again very accessible to Mr. Hines. Under federal law, in Washington State employers hiring guest workers are required to pay not only the guest workers a minimum of $12 per hour, but all workers doing the same contract work a minimum of $12 per hour. An incentive pay system allows most to make more than that, some much more. But even those who do not harvest enough under the incentive pay system to meet the $12 per hour minimum still are paid $12 per hour. This is considerably higher than guest workers in California are paid, and considerably higher than Washington State’s minimum wage of $9.19 per hour.

Fact 3: Sakuma Farms never broke off negotiations nor failed to live up to any commitment.

The mediator in this dispute, a respected former official of the federal National Labor Relations Board, will attest to the fact that it was the workers and their leader, Rosalinda Guillen, who withdrew from the negotiations. Sakuma has never broken an agreement made with these striking workers. It is also important to note that during the harvest season, while some workers participated in the strike and boycott against Sakuma, most did not. Throughout the harvest season an average of about 300 pickers were engaged in harvesting the berries, many more than those involved in the labor action. This despite the fact of threats and intimidation made against those wanting to work. Those who wanted to work left the housing area much earlier in the morning than normal to avoid the activists standing at the gates intimidating them and trying to prevent them from working.

Fact 4: Sakuma never intentionally underpaid or withheld pay from workers.

The following facts were published on our website on October 3 and again provide factual information easily verified by Mr. Hines:

We did have a payroll problem early this summer which was outside of our control.  But, it was corrected immediately and those employees were paid their full amounts.  We use ADS (DataTracK), which is well-known for its highly-reputable electronic data tracking.  We download the data from our in-field electronic scanners and this combined with registration data (name, date of birth, address, etc.) is then sent to ADP who cuts the check.  ADP’s payroll program takes care of all aspects of payroll including the proper withholding and related deductions.   ADS had a programming problem when they transitioned payroll calculations from 2012 to 2013 which impacted a very small group of workers who were also minors.  Due to the ADS mistake, these workers were treated as “exempt” from minimum wage.  As soon as Sakuma Brothers Farms discovered the problem, we manually calculated the earnings of every affected employee and they were paid the full amount earned.  ADS made the programming correction and the system has worked fine since then.

Fact 5: This labor action is not about Sakuma and its working conditions, but about labor activists’ opposition the federal guest worker program.

Sakuma Farms is fourth generation family farm operating in Skagit County. The history of our Japanese-American family includes service in the US military and internment in camps during World War II. We have established very strong relationships with our workers, many of whom have worked with us for more than ten years. Our housing, while not plush by any means, meets and exceeds all government requirements and many of our local working families choose to leave their homes in the community to stay in our housing during the harvest season. This housing is provided free of charge to them.

The labor action was initiated by Rosalinda Guillen (seated next to Mr. Torres in the picture on the blog post), who is a former United Farm Worker employee and who heads the non-profit Community to Community organization in Bellingham. The “Truth-Out” blog, referred to next, makes it clear what Guillen’s objections are: “To Rosalinda Guillen, the H2A program undermines wages and conditions. And Congress’ bills would make this worse.”

Sakuma Farms was targeted for this action because we are the first and largest in the region to make use of the federal guest worker program. This program was intended to help reduce the severe shortage of farm workers and is a closely monitored process for bringing legal foreign workers in for a harvest season. Labor activists oppose this program because they believe it limits their ability to organize workers. Sakuma Farms has lost hundreds of thousands of pounds of berries in previous seasons due to a shortage of pickers and so opted to make use of the H2A guest worker program, to supplement, not replace our domestic workers. Labor activists such as Ms. Guillen work to discourage the use of this program. That is the real story behind this unfortunate dispute.

The most significant fact in this action, one completely missed by Mr. Hines, is that it is the workers themselves who are being hurt the most by the labor activists who are using them to front their protests. Such action will only likely increase mechanization and decrease work opportunities for those who have few such opportunities to choose from.

We have a question or two for the editor and owners of the Blood, Sweat and Berries blog. Have you considered talking to those majority of workers at Sakuma who continued to work hard throughout the season, despite aggressive efforts to prevent them from working? Mr. Hines, your desire and work for justice is to be applauded. But your good work can have little impact if it is based on the kind of false information which has been irresponsibly repeated in this post.

Truth Out Blog Has Trouble Finding the Truth

http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/19564-growing-clash-between-immigrant-rights-activists-and-washington-power-brokers

With a name like “truth out” one might expect a blog to be very careful with the facts. That is not the case with David Bacon’s blog.

Many of the same lies repeated by the activists are presented here as facts, such as the firing of Ramon Torres.

The blog says that security guards were hired to frighten people in the camp. Guards were hired after workers who continued to work expressed fears about the intimidation they were subject to by the activists.

The blog also repeats the lie of not paying domestic workers the same as the H2A guest workers. As we have repeatedly stated, and would be known to Mr. Bacon, not paying domestic workers doing the same contract work as the guest workers would violate federal law.  Bacon states: Then Sakuma told strikers he wouldn’t pay them any more than he was paying the H2A workers. Sometimes he even offered them less.

Apparently, Mr. Bacon’s idea of “truth out” doesn’t include any effort to get the facts right. The $12 per hour minimum in Washington State is set by federal law and is considerably higher than guest workers are paid in California. All domestic workers doing the same contract work as the guest workers are required to get the same $12 per hour minimum. This is the law and Sakuma Farms would face significant consequences if we did as Mr. Bacon states.

Mr. Bacon’s post does make one important point very clear: Rosalinda Guillen’s issue is the H2A Guest Worker program. Her initiation and leadership of the labor unrest at Sakuma was a result of the Sakuma’s decision to supplement the limited supply of domestic workers with guest workers. The unrest was never about Sakuma, but about labor activists’ concerns about the guest worker program and immigration reform bills that Congress is considering.

Why Does the Sakuma Strike Leader Continue to Lie?

Rosalinda Guillen, the Bellingham-based labor activist and agitator behind the labor unrest at Sakuma, has proven to be exceptionally dishonest. The former United Farm Worker employee seems to believe that a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth.

She continues to claim that Ramon Torres was fired by Sakuma as retribution for his role in the unrest. It is a blatant lie and she knows it. Here is what she says in her call for action October 4:

“Their chosen leader and negotiator has been fired and is being defamed in a smear campaign.”

Guillen knows very well that Ramon Torres was arrested by the Skagit County Sheriff’s department on August 30. The case number is C00062705. According to the arrest report, Torres had pushed his wife Deanna Torres as well as “hit her and pulled the previous day.”  He was considered a potential safety threat to other residents living in the camp. As a result of this domestic violence, the judge ordered an exceptionally long five year restraining order against Mr. Torres. We have a policy that ensures we will provide a safe environment for our employees and that includes removing employees who are a threat to other employees and their families.

We ask Ms. Guillen: what would you say if we refused to enforce our employee safety standards?