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Help wanted down on the farm

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Rogue Valley vegetable farmers say they are having trouble finding workers to tend and harvest crops, in part because hemp, which is riding a major wave, tapping much of the labor force and in may cases paying better.

To make ends meet, many organic food farmers are planting fewer vegetables and firming their bottom line by growing some hemp.

“Hemp has made it a lot harder to find laborers,” says Jeff Boesch, owner of Wandering Roots Farm in Gold Hill. “My costs have risen since the whole cannabis legalization. The last two or three years, I’m paying people $2 an hour more because of what workers can earn in hemp.”

Inevitably, that means higher food costs for consumers, say farmers.

“The hemp and cannabis industry is in such a boom, it’s a pretty big draw,” says Josh Cohen, owner of Barking Moon Farm in the Applegate. “We had inquiries for jobs in winter and spring, but as soon as cannabis gets going, I’ve had zero calls. It’s our biggest challenge. We can’t compete against the cannabis industry. We feel the strain from the labor crunch, but it’s nothing we can’t eke through.”

While selling produce at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market, Philip Oje of Fry Family Farm says, “A lot of (vegetable) farms are planting hemp, (augmenting) other crops, because that’s where the profit is. Labor follows the profit. In order to compete with hemp, farmers will have to charge more for produce.”

Hemp field work starts at $14 to $20 an hour, farmers note, while veggie labor starts at $12 to $13, depending on experience. Oregon minimum wage is $11.25.

Field work is hard work

The labor crunch can’t all be laid at the doorstep of hemp, however. Chris Jagger, owner of Blue Fox Farm in the Applegate says agricultural work is just hard work and, contrary to myth, it takes a certain amount of skill.

And, adds Cohen, many young people would rather pull shots in a coffee house for similar pay.

“It’s pretty hard to get folks to sweat and get dirty, get rained on, work fields in scorching weather. We start folks at $12.50 or $13, and our farm manager is full salary,” says Cohen. “He makes double or triple what my wife makes, and she has a master’s degree and teaches at SOU full-time. I want to pay people more, but they have to know what they’re doing and need to prove they want to earn it.”

The fact is, “fewer people want farm work and it’s hard for us to pay what they expect,” says Jagger. “I’m into fair pay, but we have tight margins. In-and-Out Burger pays a better starting wage. ... If the minimum wage goes to $15, we’re going to have trouble paying it.”

Many farm owners suggest the current hemp boom can’t last and in time the plant — being grown mainly for CBD — will become a commodity crop and bring wages into line with the rest of the farm business.

“We’re going to see a leveling of the playing field as hemp becomes like any other agricultural product and margins get tighter,” says Jagger. “It will always be a more valuable crop, at least in the near future.”

Hemp needs labor too

Hemp farmers, in the meantime, are facing their own labor shortage. With the hemp harvest right around the corner, some farms have turned to professional hiring agencies to help them staff up.

Andi Hudson, of Rogue Staffing in Medford, has hired 100 pickers and is interviewing for 300 more, starting at $15 to $17 an hour, all paid above the table, with taxes and Social Security deducted.

It’s a tall order, but Hudson is confident she will get it done in time. She’s hiring for 10 farms with more than 3,000 acres and will hire mostly local residents — no undocumented noncitizens — and many more who migrate here for the work, which lasts till mid-November.

“Our goal is to create awareness among job seekers that we’re a resource to get a safe, protected job,” says Hudson. “I interview tons of people and prevent the common problems with cash jobs, that there are so many ways to get screwed — not getting paid, no Workers Comp, getting 1099’d (independent contractor) and later getting hit for a 30% tax that didn’t get paid.”

Hudson works for both sides and is a “matchmaker,” she says, vetting farms for safety, requiring security deposits from growers and trying to fill 300 jobs — by next week.

“I’m not saying all farms are unreliable,” she says. “There’s always a chance workers might not get paid or that farmers might not follow through on promises they made. I’ve seen it time and time again. But the farms we deal with are great farms.”

Hudson for three years has essentially served as HR (human resources) for cannabis farmers, she says, and is an equal opportunity employer. Applicants must have good ID, be federally legal for work in this country and, for hemp, don’t need an OLCC-issued Marijuana Worker Permit, which requires applicants to be 21.

“We deal with a lot of people who come to the West Coast for these jobs,” says Hudson. “They sometimes camp or stay with friends or rent something, and some end up staying here because they love it.”

Zane Lonis, who works at Chronic Cultures Farm in Gold Hill, says he moved from Colorado to work in the cannabis industry here. He got his job through Rogue Staffing, and he says he prefers working with recreational weed to hemp, which has vast, endless fields and is “hellish” labor.

Eagle Point resident Meghan Gilkey, who was placed in a cannabis job at Chronic Cultures by Rogue Staffing, says she appreciates the security of having worked for several months at $14 to $15 an hour.

Chronic Cultures owner Joe Arterburn, says he may handle hiring, payroll and paperwork when he gets bigger, but right now “having them do it is a lot easier.”

The hiring agency is helpful, he says, because the explosion of hemp in the area “sucks up all the labor and supplies. There was a six-week wait for drip tape this spring, and I had to order it online. Cannabis work is seasonal, so it’s nice that, when it’s over Rogue Staffing tries to find them work in other jobs, like construction.”

Hudson says “lots of farms are hustling — that’s a nice way to put it — to find workers. We’ve got multiple farms calling us, a lot of new farms. A lot have no business plan and think they can throw seeds in the ground and then sell it. They don’t understand H.R.”

The main issue, Hudson says, is “there’s not enough workers.”

Farm labor is in flux

The “green rush” of hemp will normalize, as did recreational cannabis, says Jagger, of Blue Fox Farm.

“At first, everyone and his dog had to have a recreational farm, but now a lot have gone away and you see a lot of business licenses for sale. There are a lot more acres in hemp, so it will make a bigger shock wave. Agriculture is the wildest industry we have, but it’s the root of culture, stability, and plays a big part in everything.”

Jagger has seven employees, has 35 acres in production and grows two acres of “value added” hemp, which gets cold-pressed to create elixirs. Boesch farms 50 acres, leases 20 acres to hemp farmers and grows 1.5 acres of hemp, his first try at the crop.

He has used a Mexican farm family for five years, but says, “I’m not able to find any Hispanic labor in the valley, just here and there, because it’s just not as populated here and we’re all competing against mega-farms in California.”

Jagger used migrant help in the past but no more, as “the Latino population is reduced and they’re more tuned in to long hours (on big California farms). “We’ve seen them disappear, when the administration changed (to Trump). A lot went back to the countries they came from because they’d sent them enough money, so their families were doing better.”

In earlier years, Cohen says, “I saw a lot of migrant workers come into our valley. You’d see 10 cars, undocumented people. But now, no one calls wanting to work. But I’m not comfortable with that anymore. I’ve worked to hard to create this.”

All told, adds Jagger, organic produce remains a stable business and has become mainstream “and should be. It has to be done with economy of scale. My workforce is dedicated and well-paid and they eat as much as they need for free. I incentivize them, letting them use our equipment to grow organic seed for that market. It’s more than a job to them — and we keep the money in the local economy.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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Meghan Gilkey works on trimming pot plants at Chronic Cultures Farm in Gold Hill Friday.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune