Seasonal worker housing divides small town community

Seasonal worker housing divides small town community
In response to a statewide agricultural labor shortage problem, pear farmers in the town of Dryden are proposing to build three temporary housing units for seasonal workers. However, the project has drawn protest from some residents who say it is too large for the community. Photo: TJ Martinell

A controversy within a tiny Central Washington community over a proposed housing unit on private land along its Main Street for foreign seasonal workers is demonstrative of the statewide labor shortage affecting the entire agriculture industry.

Dryden is a small town of roughly 243 people surrounded by pear orchards, many of them owned by Craig Christensen, a fifth-generation Dryden farmer who operates Remley Orchards’ 600 acres. He has applied for a conditional use permit from Chelan County to build housing units on private land he owns along Dryden’s Main Street near their fruit warehouse for H2A workers; the federal program provides temporary visas for foreign workers to fill agricultural jobs that farmers like Jim Robertson say aren’t getting filled by domestic workers. The workers would also be used on the 150 acres owned by Robertson.

For Christensen and Robertson, the private proposal is the best way to ensure adequate labor to harvest crops, while also contending with government regulations that often constrain how and where they can house those workers. But for Dryden residents opposed to it, the project disturbs the community’s rural atmosphere and creates uncertainty about what other changes are in store.

Dryden is only miles away from Wenatchee, the self-described “apple capital of the world.” Washington state itself is an agricultural powerhouse, producing more apples, sweet cherries, grapes, pear and hops than any other state in the country. The Yakima Valley alone produces 75 percent of the nation’s hops.

Robertson told Lens that the labor shortage became an issue for them in the last three years. Previously, a consistent group of fruit pickers would work their way around orchards in various states, including Washington. However, that workforce is getting older, retiring and can be difficult to replace. With political tensions high regarding border and immigration policy, Robertson said they have also had trouble getting workers from Mexico to come here at all.

The local situation reflects an ongoing statewide problem. According to a 2017 policy brief by Washington Policy Center Agricultural Research Director Madilynne Clark, agricultural labor shortage exceeded eight percent from 2011-2013 in the peak season, and the shortage was at its highest in 2016. While 96 percent of farms reported labor shortages, farms greater than 500 acres were less likely to be negatively affected.

“To solve the ongoing labor shortage, growers will need to use a combination of guest workers and mechanization to continue producing food,” Clark writes. “Adopting policies that speed the approval of H-2A visas will benefit these Washington growers, the entire agricultural sector, and Washington’s broader state economy.”

However, the size of Christensen’s proposal and the number of people living in the units have drawn concerns from many Dryden residents. The plan is to initially have 64 workers, but the units would have capacity for 192. The announcement sparked letters of protest and a local petition to halt the plans, eventually leading to a meeting put on by Christensen and Robertson on Mar. 14 at the Dryden Community Hall.

“It just scares me as a community member to have this big project right here,” one Dryden resident said, adding that there are few sidewalks in the town. “How are we going to keep pedestrians safe? Even during the harvest right now, it’s dangerous to go through town. I will never let my girls walk up town. Dryden is not the same anymore as 50, 60, 70 years ago when our families moved into the area.”

Resident anxieties at the meeting were varied. A repeated concern was articulated by homeowners adjacent to the proposed site about issues with garbage or trespassing. But as the meeting progressed, criticism gradually revolved around the project size.

One woman at the meeting said: “We’re talking about maintaining the character of the community, and it is a rural community. But this is high-density housing. We’re talking about high-density in an area that has no other high-density housing and no infrastructure to support it.”

However, Christensen and other farmers in attendance warned that if they don’t have sufficient workers during harvest, they could be forced to sell some of their orchards.

“Our commitment is to hopefully be able to have a rural environment that we all love be sustainable,” Christensen said. “Because at the rate we’re going, it’s not going to be sustainable. If we go down the road to Sunnyslope, the orchards are disappearing (and) housing is going up. Our commitment is to put forth the energy to make something happen so that the orchards in our Dryden community are going to be here long after I die.”

A similar perspective was shared at the meeting by a woman who told residents that “this labor issue is critical, and people talk about the community changing. If we don’t have labor to harvest our crops, we’re going to see a really negative change to this community.”

*This story has been updated to include the fact that the property in question is privately owned by Christensen. The original story also incorrectly attributed quotes to Leavenworth Chamber Of Commerce Executive Director Nancy Smith, who did not attend the meeting, to a chamber member who did attend.

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