Monday, April 7, 2014

The End Of A Skagit Valley Sakuma Strawberry Legacy

It has been over 15 years since I lived in the Skagit Valley zone of Washington. A couple years ago the subject of picking strawberries, decades ago, came up. Who picks the berries nowadays we wondered?

Years ago migrant workers arrived in the Skagit Valley to pick the crops. Many opted to stay. Some of those who opted to stay were among my favorite classmates.

At some point in time, was it the 1960s, or 1970s, or later, that the camps which provided temporary housing for the migrant workers ceased to exist?

When I was a kid most of my fellow kids worked in the fields of the Skagit Valley, along with the migrant workers, picking strawberries, raspberries and cucumbers. My picking career ceased before blueberries became a big Skagit Valley crop.

I remember the experience of picking berries and cucumbers as a good thing. Particularly the picking of cucumbers after I graduated from being paid by filling a heavy bucket to being paid by the hour whilst laying on a padded board on a mechanical picking machine.

Picking strawberries you got paid by the flat, with 12  boxes to a flat. You were issued a ticket which got punched whenever you checked in a flat. At the end of the season the berry grower would put on a big party, after which we got our paychecks.

I do not remember ever seeing anything that I thought was some form of child labor abuse. We were a rather feisty bunch of pickers. I remember a group of us banding together once in a cucumber field, going on "strike" til the owner fired a supervisor we thought to be wrong-headed and over bearing.

So, with all that as preface, I was very surprised by an Open Letter from the Sakuma Brothers that I saw today on the Sakuma Market Stand's Facebook page.

From that letter I learned that this generation's kids don't have the chance to make some money like kids did when I was young. I am a little confused by what I read in the Open Letter, but one thing seemed real clear, that being that berry pickers are no longer paid for how much they pick. They are now paid by the hour, as in $11.87 an hour.

No wonder berries are so expensive in a grocery store.

Are kids still allowed to have paper routes? I had a paper route when I was in 7th and 8th grade. Do kids still load up their bikes with newspapers and deliver them? And then go collecting at the end of the month? I hated the collecting part.

Anyway, below is the entirety of the Open Letter from the Sakumas. And before I copy and paste that, in the interest of full disclosure I must admit I have always liked the Sakumas. Tess and Karen Sakuma were classmates of mine. My right knee still has a scar where Tess Sakuma whacked me with her clarinet......

An open letter to our community:


It has been said that hind-sight is 20/20 vision. Today, at this vantage point, we are able to clearly see the problems that faced us during last year’s harvest season and the actions that we could have taken if we had known better. And like most companies, it is hindsight that allows us to make better decisions today and prepare us for tomorrow.

Like many of you who have generations of history in this community, we too feel a deep gratitude and indebtedness to Skagit County. Our family moved to Burlington in 1937 where we began farming strawberries and where we were welcomed by our neighbors. In 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II, we were forced to vacate our property and move to relocation camps. Because of the compassion of the Oscar Mapes family, who willingly became stewards of our land, our family was able to return to our home and farm at the end of WWII.

We are committed to Skagit County because of the people that have allowed us to continue to be a part of this community and because of what our community has given back to us. This commitment is the foundation of the business decisions that we made in the past and will continue to make in the future.

Our signature crop is strawberries and since the end of WWII, our Company has been the employer of large numbers of both local and migrant labor. Our summer jobs drew local youths from Concrete, Sedro-Woolley, Anacortes, Oak Harbor, Mount Vernon, Bow, Edison, and Burlington. Many of you will remember the bus loads of local pickers that would arrive at our farm at dawn to pick in the strawberry fields. Many of you earned your first paycheck from our Company. We also provided advancement opportunities to our best pickers and hired them to work as they continued their high school and college education.

We continued to provide summer employment even after the child labor laws invoked a minimum age requirement which reduced the pool of eligible youths who could pick in our fields. Because of the popularity and demand by our community, we continued the “Local Kids Crew” and parents drove their children to the fields at 6 AM and returned to pick up their sometimes muddy children at noon.

In 1997, when our Company took over the responsibility and ownership of the last small fruit processing plant in Skagit County, we were able to provide more jobs for our local youth. Graduates of our Local Kids Crew were offered positions at both the farm and processing facility. The Sakuma Market Stand also provided additional employment opportunities for the young people of our community.

Fast forward to 2012. We were hit head-on with a labor shortage. As a result, we were forced to leave 400,000 pounds of our crop unpicked in our fields. With our 20/20 hindsight, we entered 2013 with the knowledge that we would again be short on labor. Our domestic labor pool was shrinking and we could not find alternative sources. It was because of this situation that we made our decision to apply for the federal H2A Guest Worker Program. The H2A program provides a means for agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature. These Guest Workers are intended to “supplement” the local work force, not displace. Our experience in 2012, supported our belief that we would require 160 H2A Guest Workers to supplement our local and migrant labor. We also believed that we could harvest our strawberry crop without the use of the H2A Guest Workers and chose to bring them in mid-August for our blueberry and blackberry harvest.

Unfortunately we were wrong on two counts. First, we did not have enough domestic labor to pick strawberries, our first crop of the season. And second, we did not expect the targeted attacks made on our Company and employees by special interest groups who opposed our decision to bring in H2A Guest Workers. As a result, more than 400,000 lbs. of strawberries were left unpicked in our fields. The interest groups spread false information as they rallied against our Company and called for a boycott of our products. The interest groups believed that the H2A program took away jobs from our domestic local and migrant workers. This was and remains untrue. H2A regulations require the hiring of any domestic U.S. worker that is willing, ready, and able to perform the job requirement of a blueberry and blackberry picker. In addition, the H2A regulation prohibits the displacement of a domestic U.S. worker by an H2A Guest Worker. In other words, the Company did not and could not deny a qualified domestic U.S. worker the opportunity to work in favor of an H2A Guest Worker. However, because of the disruptions caused by the activities initiated by these interest groups, our labor force remained unsteady and the number of workers insufficient.

Farming requires a stable, legal and a cost-effective work force. Given our experience of 2013, we anticipate more of the same challenges this year. As a result, we are prepared to expand the coverage of the H2A program across all of our crops. We recognize that this decision creates unintended consequences. Our desire to continue supporting the youth of our community can no longer be sustained because of the economic consequences of using the H2A Guest Worker Program. The requirement to guarantee all pickers the Adverse Effect Wage Rate of $11.87 per hour, makes it economically unfeasible to operate the Local Kids Crew. As many parents already know, the average strawberry picker in the Local Kids Crew picks 86 pounds per day. In order to achieve the $11.87 per hour we must guarantee under the H2A program the average picker would have to pick 360 pounds daily. As you can see from this example, our decision to close our Local Kids Crew is based on economic necessity. Federal law, as it currently stands, does not give us the option to provide work to our youth that teaches the skills of a strong work ethic at an economic acceptable level. 

We trust that you understand and support our decision.

Steven M. Sakuma
Sakuma Bros. Family Business