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Growers predict abundant labor

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

STATEWIDE When the time comes this June to pick his strawberries, Mike Christensen is not quite sure who will be in the fields.

But with the economy in a shambles and jobs in short supply, growers like Christensen, who owns a 250-acre strawberry farm in the Willamette Valley and is chairman of the Oregon Strawberry Commission, could benefit from a larger supply of available workers.

The harvest of Oregon’s valuable tree fruit and berry crop is months away, so it’s typically a grower’s best guess how much labor will be on hand for the tough work of picking. “A shortage of labor should generally not be a problem this year,” says state labor economist Art Ayre.

In the last three years growers have seen a labor shortage of up to 25%, according to the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers. The healthier economy provided more desirable job opportunities to field workers, says Jean Godfrey, executive director of the group. But this year, growers expect many of those workers who left for better jobs to return to field work, especially those from construction.

But Christensen anticipates more working-age high school and college students seeking summer work this year, and worries about seeing a return of the migrant labor that he has come to depend on, many of whom he says have left the state.

Godfrey thinks otherwise. “We just do not see urban unemployed workers willing to come out here,” she says.

JASON SHUFFLER

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