I try not to get super political on this blog, because I think there are plenty of things to talk about without getting into partisan issues, and I like to see groups leave their party affiliations at the door when they come to the table to talk. But, that being said, I’m having a hard time keeping quiet on the minimum wage discussion. Maybe it’s because I’ve made friends with a lot of farmers since moving to Oregon or maybe it’s because I’m becoming the kind of person who realizes that I’ll never make a real impact unless I follow and participate in local politics. Either way, I’m going to come right out and say it: I’m a Democrat, and I do not support the proposed minimum wage increase currently being debated in the Oregon House of Representatives. It’s not because I don’t want people to earn more money, I do. It’s not because I don’t care about those full-time workers who can’t make ends meet, I do. I’ve watched the public hearings in the Senate and in the House and I’ve heard the emotional stories on both sides. What it comes down to for me is this: I think pushing this kind of a bill through a short, 35-day session designed to handle budget issues and using the threat of a ballot measure as a weak excuse for urgency leads to sloppy and irresponsible legislation.
Let me take a step back. For those of you who are normally like me and don’t follow the Oregon legislature, I’ll explain. The Oregon legislature used to meet every other year for a six-month session during which they debated and passed bills. During the recession, the legislature had to call a number of special sessions to deal with budget crises, so through a ballot measure it was decided on the off years the legislature would meet for a short session (35 days) to address budget-related issues and make other small tweaks. We’re currently in the middle of the third of those short sessions, and it’s turned into a free-for-all. They’re debating things from increasing the minimum wage to a cap-and-trade bill to a ban on sky lanterns (what do any of those have to do with the budget?). Part of it has to do with the fact that proponents of raising the minimum wage have threatened to put up a ballot initiative that would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and legislators are using that as an excuse to hurry a “less bad” bill. The bigger reason, I think, is that Democrats currently have a super majority in the House and the Senate and they’re taking advantage of that to push forward with their issues. The ballot measure threat is just an excuse. The proposed SB 1532 would increase the state’s minimum wage over the next six years in a tiered approach taking us from the current wage of $9.25 to $14.75 an hour in Portland with other urban counties at $13.50 and rural counties at $12.50.
Here’s the thing. There’s just not enough time in a 35 day session for legislators to fully vet this kind of a bill. Let’s not pass bad legislation with enormous impact with the paltry excuse that we’re afraid of a worse ballot measure. I’m not even convinced the ballot measure would pass. Importantly, the Oregonian, the Eugene Register-Guard and the Statesman-Journal all agree with me in thinking this is too much too fast and a little premature. When three of the state’s major papers come out against it, maybe it’s worth pausing to think about.
So here’s what I can do. Since I failed at a January Farming in Focus post because I was preoccupied with my new job, I can show you the faces and tell you the stories of some of those who will be directly impacted by a hike in Oregon’s minimum wage. These are the people who have convinced me that this is a bad idea. These are the people who I’ve seen explain in legislative hearings that this bill will hurt the very people it proposes to help, that it will cause them to cut jobs and rely on mechanization for their crops, and that it may well put them at a discrete disadvantage against neighboring states and in the end, put them out of business. I hope they can convince you, too.
Robin Froerer’s family grows and sells fresh asparagus in Nyssa, Oregon. She’s spent 20 years building her fresh pack asparagus business. “This increase will force me to remove the crop,” she said. “I simply cannot pay the increase to minimum and stay price competitive.” In the image above she’s on a WinCo Foods Warehouse Visit – her business sells asparagus to WinCo which calls themselves the “Low Cost Leader.” (It’s true – that’s why I shop there myself.) Since Froerer doesn’t have the ability to raise the price of asparagus to make up for the increase in labor costs, she’s unable to compete with asparagus growers in other states who don’t have such a high minimum wage. “When it comes times to buy asparagus, WinCo will buy from those with the cheaper prices, not from Oregon farmers, and we will be out of business,” she said. “How much would you pay for a pound of asparagus?”
Marie Bowers (second from left) is a 5th generation grass seed farmer in Linn and Lane Counties. Her family also farms wheat and meadowfoam – I profiled her farm’s wheat harvest in July. Bowers has calculated that the proposed bill would increase her farm’s employee cost by $13 per acre. At current market conditions she estimates they would need to increase their yields to produce at least 177,000 more pounds of annual ryegrass. If farmers knew how to dramatically increase their yield, they’d already be doing it, but yield is dictated by many uncontrolled factors like weather. It’s not something they can just crank up this year to absorb increased employee costs. During harvest they hire about seven local students to drive combines, balers and tractors. “For over half a century my family’s farm has hired local youth to work harvest,” she said. “Watching these kids grow as humans and workers is always a very rewarding privilege, particularly when they say ‘Thank you’ 20 years later for teaching them to work.” Bowers believes the current minimum wage proposals will eliminate this opportunity for local kids because many like her will no longer be able to afford to hire them. If they’re going to pay that much, they’ll seek more experienced labors and would turn to automation.”The thought of taking away a kid’s chance to learn work and gain work ethic breaks my heart for them and their future,” she said. For many of these kids, the lessons learned on the farm inspire them to go on to earn their living as a farmer.
Robby Scharf’s family has owned and operated a farm in Polk County for more than 100 years. His family’s farm grows grapes, hazelnuts, grass, wheat, clover, radish, field corn and canola. Robby works on the family farm and his mom Anna says he wants them to hire his high school friends. “With an increase in minimum wage,” she said, “We will automate and those summer jobs for his friends will go away.” Scharf asserts that if this bill passes in addition to adjusting the crops they grow to ones that require less labor, they’ll install a robotic palletizer that would eliminate two to three workers and they would use their mechanical grape harvester instead of hiring more than 40 pickers a day during grape harvest. In addition to the loss of jobs, for the consumer, mechanization can have real market implications. In the case of grapes, at least one wine maker I interviewed preferred the quality of hand-picked grapes to mechanically harvested grapes.
Karl Dettwyler (left) grows blueberries, hazelnuts, grass, grains and vegetable crops in the Willamette Valley. Blueberries are one crop particularly sensitive to an increase in the minimum wage because in order get the quality needed for the fresh market, the berries must be picked by hand. For the consumer, a transition to mechanization would mean fewer fresh blueberries and more frozen blueberries. Strawberry growers might be worse off, though, because there is no way to harvest strawberries mechanically. Those growers are completely at the mercy of labor costs.
Brenda Frketich is a third generation farmer from St. Paul. I profiled her farm last May. Her family grows grass seed, hazelnuts, wheat, clover, vegetables and vegetable seed. They employ anywhere from four to 10 employees throughout the year. “There is no giant pot of money sitting around on our farm just waiting to be dipped into to pay for this pay increase,” she said. “For many businesses I believe and fear that the increase in pay for entry level employees will take away from current employees, even those in the middle level of employment. The money will inevitably come from reduced hiring tactics, decreased benefits for current employees, and even cuts in bonus pay or yearly wage increases.” Frketich believes an increase in the minimum wage will hurt small Oregon businesses, and most of all the farmers who grow our food.
Shelly Boshart Davis is a third-generation farmer whose family grows grass seed, wheat and hazelnuts in the Willamette Valley and operates a grass straw baling, trucking and export business. “The increase would impact how many youth we hire every summer, and that is a devastating thought,” Davis said. “We take pride in teaching the next generation about hard work, and the value of a dollar. It will also increase our cost of doing business, and could make us uncompetitive with the global marketplace.” Davis, like me, believes the wage increase is happening too fast in a short session and hasn’t had fiscal impacts properly analyzed. She contests the wage increase is too high and doesn’t account for the unique needs of industries such as agriculture and food processing, among others. Lastly, she asserts separating the state into three tiers based on county lines is not economically or geographically sound. “Farms cross county lines, economies are significantly different in different areas of a county” she said. “For example, Linn County where I live has a larger urban area – Albany – but has much of the county in rural and timber land. Benton County has Corvallis, but also a large rural area. You could say the same for Lane County, Polk County, Marion County, Yamhill County, and others.” Below is Davis with her dad (left) and her grandfather on his last combine ride before he passed away. These three generations of Oregon farmers are asking legislators not to impose mandates that they’re concerned threaten the chances they’ll be able to pass on their legacy of farming.
These are the faces impacted by SB 1532. It’s likely the House will vote on the bill today. If you live in Oregon, I’d urge you to contact your legislator and let them know how you feel.