Steve Sakuma’s 1st Blog – Helpful meeting

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.

Steve Sakuma

 

Is There Really a Farm Labor Shortage?

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.

The complete article may be found here.

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.

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