Employment, wages grow in agriculture

Officials say warmer, drier weather helped prolong the seasonal work, while job cutbacks in other industries bulked up the labor force.

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Unemployment may be up across most industries since the start of the recession. But state officials say plenty of jobs can still be found down on the farm.

And many of them come with a bigger paycheck than they once did.

Agricultural jobs and their wages have spiked over the last year, according to a report released last week by the Washington State Employment Security Department.

Officials say warmer, drier weather helped prolong the seasonal work, while job cutbacks from other industries bulked up the labor force.

In the face of the worst recession since the 1930s, agriculture has continued to thrive - likely bolstered by the fact that one thing for consumers hasn't changed: they have to eat.

"In a tough economy people may give up a lot of discretionary purchases, but they still buy food," Employment Security Department Commissioner Karen Lee said. "That keeps agriculture more stable than other industries."

Agricultural employment across the state increased 22 percent from January 2009 to January 2010. The jump was largely attributed to apple pruning, which added 3,240 jobs.

Jim Hazen, business manager for Prescott's Broetje Orchards, one of the largest privately owned apple orchards in the country with more than 6,000 acres of apples and cherries, was unavailable for comment. Ron Brown of Milton-Freewater orchard Brown & Sons was also not available for comment.

Seasonal agriculture employment in the state's Southeastern area, which includes Walla Walla, Franklin and Benton counties, jumped 155.4 percent, according to Employment Security's report. Seasonal wages for that area spiked 19.4 percent, the report said.

Agricultural employment jumps overall were largely concentrated in the central regions of the state. In addition to the apple work, other fruit crops helped beef up the numbers: cherry trees, up 1,170 jobs; pear trees, up 1,150 jobs; raspberry vines, up 600 jobs; and onion crops, up 520 jobs.

Wages for these workers also were up by about 7.2 percent, from $8.79 to $9.42 per hour, the report said. The results of the report were based on a survey of 1,800 growers across Washington.

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