Frozen food company iced out by worker shortage

George Plaven
The East Oregonian
In this April 22, 2013, file photo, Norpac inspector Gudelia Martinez looks for defects in a blend of beans and carrots bound for the Flav-R-Pac label in Salem, OR.. Labor woes are an issue that has affected all corners of the agricultural and manufacturing industries, from the farm to the factory.

WESTON, Ore. (AP) — Finding enough workers is getting to be more of a challenge for Michael Lesko at Smith Frozen Foods.

The company, which processes and packages frozen vegetables near Weston, is capable of storing more than 130 million pounds of product on site, including corn, lima beans, onions and carrots. Harvest season typically begins around June 1 and runs through the end of November, when the demand for seasonal labor is at its strongest.

Lesko, director of human resources for Smith Frozen Foods, said the plant has roughly 100 regular employees and typically hires another 200 seasonal workers through harvest. Those positions, however, are becoming more difficult to fill, he said, which has left the plant short up to 10 workers on any given shift over the past year.

"It's been difficult keeping people, by all means," Lesko said. "We were looking for people to start in June and work through November, but that's becoming more and more rare."

Labor woes are not unique to Smith Frozen Foods — it is an issue that has affected all corners of the agricultural and manufacturing industries, from the farm to the factory. Earlier this year, the Capital Press documented workforce worries from cherry growers in Chelan, Washington, all the way down to Linden, California, while the Oregonian/OregonLive also spoke to orchards in The Dalles and vineyards in the Willamette Valley.

Locally, both AgriNorthwest and Threemile Canyon Farms declined to speak specifically about experiences at their own operations, though Matthew Vickery, land and government affairs director for AgriNorthwest, did acknowledge that labor shortage "is a growing problem for everyone in agriculture."

Neither the Oregon Department of Agriculture or Department of Labor and Industries keep statistics on the farm labor. Dallas Fridley, region economist for the Columbia River Gorge and Columbia Basin, provided information from the U.S. Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey, which was last updated in 2013-14.

According to that report, approximately two-thirds of hired farmworkers were born in Mexico, and 80 percent of all farmworkers were Hispanic. Just more than half of farmworkers, or 53 percent, had work authorization, and the vast majority, or 84 percent, were settled in the country.

The reason for the shortage is difficult to prove, Lesko said. Some point to an improved economy in Mexico, while others may finger the country's failure to adopt a comprehensive immigration policy. For his part, Lesko said he does not see anything happening on a macro-political scale as having much effect on labor at Smith Frozen Foods.

"It is all speculative," he said. "There's no one reason that I think it's a problem."

In fact, Lesko said the problem has only worsened over the last decade. Smith Frozen Foods has taken a number of steps to fill shifts, such as billboards, radio ads, hiring temporary workers from local staffing agencies and providing bonuses to workers who agree to stay through the end of the season.

"We're just short," Lesko said. "We're constantly looking."

Labor shortage was a major undertone at the Future Farm Expo earlier this year in Pendleton, where growers met with leaders in cutting-edge technology and automation for agriculture. The three-day showcase featured a variety of trials using equipment such as drones, smartphone apps and even virtual reality.

Lesko said Smith Frozen Foods is automating where it can, though a lot of that tech may not be available or affordable for the plant.

"I don't see any solution (to labor shortage) on the horizon," he said.

Fortunately, Lesko said the issue did not affect the size or quality of this year's harvest at Smith Frozen Foods. Crews have not been forced to bypass fields, and the company has managed to keep up with its orders.

"We haven't been bypassing fields based on the fact that we can't harvest the product or process the product," he said. "We typically try to harvest to what we think our orders are. That hasn't changed."