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Tight labor threatens produce supply chain as concerns about new coronavirus spread

In this file photo taken April 27, 2009, Latino workers till an asparagus field near Toppenish, Wash., on the Yakama Indian Reservation.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press (file)
In this file photo taken April 27, 2009, Latino workers till an asparagus field near Toppenish, Wash., on the Yakama Indian Reservation.

Amid concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus, panic buying in grocery stores has left empty shelves where you’d normally find toilet paper. And the company that owns local Albertsons and Safeway stores has added extra shifts at its bread factory in Oregon, to keep up with surging demand in the Northwest. Some items that take longer to produce, such as chicken, have become scarce in places, with stores offering frozen turkey as a substitute.

So, what about fresh fruits and vegetables?

Experts say there is plenty of food to go around. Right now, most of the items coming from local fields are things like root vegetables or potatoes that have been in cold storage. Other fresh produce comes from farther afield. But getting it into retail markets can be challenging because of the pinch on labor. Truck drivers and warehouse workers are in high demand.

P.J.Cawley is with Charlie’s Produce, a wholesale distributor with regional warehouses in Seattle, Spokane and five other cities. He says orders from grocery stores have nearly doubled. And labor shortages are leading to lots of backordered items.

“If I were to try to put in an order for Russet potatoes right now with a shipper or grower, the soonest I could probably load those would be next week, Friday — which is not what we’re accustomed to,” Cawley said. “Normally, I would expect to put the order in today and load it on a truck tomorrow.”

There’s also been a big shift on how and what growers pack onto trucks. Most have shifted to packing exclusively for retail, instead of also filling orders for restaurants or food service, where items don't have to look as nice. Those orders are nearly gone now, because of the state edict to close restaurants and schools. 


Seasonal demand for farm labor has long been problematic for growers, but this year it’s especially tight, due to concerns about the new coronavirus combined with immigration issues.   

The first crop of the year is asparagus. Harvest typically begins in early April. And Eastern Washington’s growers produce more of it than those in any other state.

Alan Schreiber is executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission. He grows three kinds of asparagus on his farm near Pasco and is getting ready for the busy season, when he typically has about 125 people on the payroll. He says his labor supply already is barely enough. He can’t afford to have anyone out sick.

“Last year, we were not able to cut all of our asparagus, because we didn’t have enough workers,” Schreiber said. “If we have 5, 10, 15 percent of our workers out sick, it could affect our supply.”

He says losing even 5 percent could cause real problems. At peak production, he has about 80 people working shoulder to shoulder in his warehouse. Social distancing isn’t really possible there, so they’ll rely instead on masks and hand sanitizer and mandatory hand washing.

The threat of the virus hits amid an ongoing shortage of guest workers throughout the farming community in Washington, due in no small part to issues with H2-A visas. In a March 2020 newsletter, Dan Fazio, director of Washington Farm Labor Association sent out a dire warning.

"(U)nless we can get workers here in April and May, there will be no harvest in September," Fazio wrote.

And while Schreiber says he doesn’t expect this to impact his farm directly, he does expect to pay higher wages because of increased demand for his workers. He’s already applied for an extended line of credit to cover those new costs.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to