- Associated Press - Monday, September 29, 2014

SEATTLE (AP) - Hop farmers in the Yakima Valley say it’s a challenge to keep up with demand from Washington’s craft breweries.

Washington hop farmers expect to harvest more than 29,000 acres of hops this season, The Seattle Times reported (https://is.gd/ItOina ). The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that’s a 7 percent increase from last year.

Washington grows 77 percent of the nation’s hops. At the same time the number of craft breweries is increasing, hop growers say they are facing labor shortages. So even though they are planting more acres, getting the product to market is becoming more of a problem.

At Loftus Ranches in Yakima, a crew of 80 worked around the clock to harvest 950 acres of hops since Aug. 27. The crew averaged about 25 acres a day, or about 50,000 pounds, depending on the variety, said Patrick Smith, a fourth-generation hop grower and vice president of Loftus Ranches.

“Typically a crew is out in the field doing post-harvest work (by now) - removing drip tube … prepping to get our cover crop seeded and irrigated,” Smith said. “We’ll have to keep a few more people here to get caught up in October.”

Loftus Ranches, which also grows apples and cherries, has added 200 acres of hops. They would like to add more, but there are hurdles.

“We are competing for acreage, labor, management … for everything with the apples,” Smith said.

In 2012, apple growers employed 45,000 seasonal workers, about two-thirds of the state’s entire seasonal agricultural pool. Hops, on the other hand, employed 2,337 workers.

Last September, apple growers said they were short about 4,000 workers in a survey by the state Employment Security Department.

Washington hop growers expect to produce 55.3 million pounds this year, the largest harvest since 2009 at 75 million pounds, according to the USDA.

Knowing the worker shortage will not improve as farms increase hop production, Loftus Ranches was the first hop grower to use the federal government’s H-2A temporary-work visa program.

Smith hired 19 workers from Mexico to harvest hops this year and expects to hire more than 50 next year. The apple growers are expected to hire 8,500 H-2A workers for this season.

H-2A workers are contracted to stay on a specific farm. Other workers can leave in the middle of the harvest to go pick apples, because it pays more, Smith says.

Last week, Loftus lost three truck drivers to the apple industry. Working three men down for a couple of days while finding replacements put them even farther behind on their post-harvest field work, he said.

“We lost four days … it may not sound like a lot, but that is 10 percent,” he says. “It could make a substantial difference because there is a small harvest window.”

Smith has increased wages to entice people to work hops, but said he can’t afford to compete with apples at $30 a bin.

He now pays $11.87 an hour, up from $10.30 two years ago, and his crew works 80 hours a week.

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Information from: The Seattle Times, https://www.seattletimes.com


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