Ensuring that workers are adequately housed is a priority at Orchard View Farms, a major cherry producer in The Dalles, Oregon.
Vice President Ken Bailey said the company considers its employees as family, and, in fact, some are related through marriage or descent. It has some workers whose grandparents worked there almost 50 years ago.
For the past 15 years, Orchard View Farms has been offering cash bonuses to full-time employees to use as part of the down payment on a house. Bailey said the company has paid bonuses ranging from about $2,000 to as much as $5,000 if both spouses work there.
"I think it helps create some loyalty from our employees," Bailey said. "They know we’ve supported them. We think it’s helped them build equity in their own home."
Employees need to apply for the bonus, although there is no formal application process. And though there are no guidelines in terms of who can apply, Bailey said applicants have generally been good workers who have been with the company for several years.
Out of the 16 to 18 employees who have received the bonus since the program began, only one is no longer with the company, he said. "So, I think it’s been very successful. It may not be the only thing that keeps employees liking to work for us, but I think it’s part of the whole program."
Bailey said employees who have bought their own homes in town seem to enjoy living in the community and have assimilated well. When they live on farm, they tend to work and socialize with their relatives. "Sometimes you can get tired of working with your brother all the time," he said.
When they live in town, they tend to become involved in outside activities, such as Little League baseball and soccer, and the community has gotten to know them better. Providing an incentive to workers living in on-farm housing to buy their own homes also has the advantage of freeing up housing for other employees to use. Orchard View Farms has about 85 full-time employees and around 600 seasonal workers during cherry harvest. Bailey said the company has housing for about 300 workers. About half of its seasonal workers, particularly those in the packing house, are local people, including students, teachers, and retired people wanting summer work for extra income. Still, the company doesn’t have as much housing as it would like. He considers it essential to provide housing for migrant harvest crews in order to be able to attract good workers.
"How to do that and be able to afford that are difficulties we’re working through," he said. "It’s easy to convince yourself you can’t afford it, but you can’t afford not to have workers. You have a lot invested in the crop and the orchards. If you don’t get the workers to harvest it, it doesn’t make any sense. We believe the only way to assure ourselves of getting the best workers is to provide housing. In the smaller communities like The Dalles, if there’s no housing and no place to stay, they’re going to go somewhere else. Those who are providing the housing are going to get a jump on getting the better workers."
In the past, Orchard View Farms has offered labor-camp-style housing, but in the last few years, it has been upgrading the housing. Most had kitchen facilities and sleeping units, but each unit now has a toilet and shower. Last year, air conditioning was added to all the buildings.
Bailey said between 95 and 98 percent of the company’s orchards are cherries. As the company has planted new cherry varieties and expanded to parcels at different elevations around The Dalles and Hood River, the harvest season has become more extended than it used to be. "Instead of a three- to four-week period, where it was comfortable for people to live in a camping atmosphere, it’s now eight to nine weeks."