Okanogan County Farm Bureau President Jon Wyss, to emphasize the list of farm labor issues facing Washington state, extended his arm as high as it could go above his head. His other arm went as far down as it could go.

“There’s a list of things, I mean this long, that really have to be addressed and dealt with as soon as possible,” Wyss said Tuesday. “At stake here is whether we’re going to have a legal, stable and economically viable farm labor sector into the future, in the coming generations.”

Wyss is in Ellensburg for a statewide Farm Work Group meeting at Central Washington University this week. The governor-appointed group brings together diverse and sometimes adversarial organizations, namely farm labor and immigration rights advocacy groups, statewide unions and agricultural business associations.

The group was formed by the state Legislature. Appointments were made by Gov. Jay Inslee with the goal of finding mutually agreeable solutions to the mounting number of the state’s farm labor issues.

Wyss, who also heads up the Washington Farm Bureau’s Labor Committee, said the status of the state’s farm laborers is critical to the state’s economy, referring to the state Department of Agriculture’s estimate of a $49 billion food and agricultural industry in Washington state.

The value of agricultural operations alone to farmers, ranchers and orchardists growing and raising agricultural products was nearly $10 billion in 2012, according to the state.

Labor’s the focus

Wyss is employed by Gebbers Farms near Brewster which grows and packs apples and sweet cherries. He’s also vice president of the national USA Farmers organization, a grower-led group that provides advocacy in public policies that can affect the federal H-2A guest worker program.

The state Farm Bureau’s Labor Committee met Tuesday in Ellensburg, and Wyss and state Farm Bureau Government Relations Associate Director Scott Dilley attended and stayed on for the state Farm Work Group, of which Dilley also is a member.

Wyss represents farmers on the state group.

“Agriculture is a labor-based economy,” Dilley said Tuesday at the Daily Record office. “We’re in a global economy and to keep up our leadership we need the best labor force possible.”

Dilley acknowledged that the 10 members of the diverse Farm Work Group haven’t come together like this for in-depth talks in his memory.

“We’re at the same table and we’re talking and working together to understand each other’s points of view,” Dilley said.

The two-day session in Ellensburg focuses on what priorities for action the group wants to tackle.

Issues, issues

Some of the issues the group likely will grapple with are business and labor practices in regard to farm workers and their families, including funding for more worker housing, maintaining and improving workplace standards for safety and health of workers, better communication of concerns between farm labor groups and the agricultural industry and improved coordination of state agencies that have oversight of agriculture operations or deliver services to farm workers.

Addressing seasonal and year-round farm labor supply problems also is part of the group’s mandate.

State Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, whose district covers part of Skagit County, pushed for the group in the Legislature. The aim is to bridge the divide between labor and management to benefit agriculture in the state, she said at the time.

The group’s first meeting was June 5 in Ellensburg and two more sessions are planned this year. The state Employment Security Department coordinates the meetings.

Nina Martinez, a member of the group and part of the advocacy group Latino Civic Alliance, has indicated in past statements she wants to address whether there is, in fact, a farm worker shortage, despite information from the Employment Security Department.

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