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A broad group of agricultural industries, labor representatives, work force training organizations, and a non-profit organization is working together in Oregon to create a more efficient, more skilled, and stable farm work force.

The newly launched project, called the Northwest Agriculture Consortium/Oregon, is initially focusing on a pilot project targeting the wine grape and nursery industries in Oregon’s upper Willamette Valley, said Kevin Boyle, who is directing the new consortium. The pilot will be used as a model to broaden the scope to other commodities.

“The idea is to improve the workers that are here,” Boyle said, adding that the concept of improving the skill set of farmworkers is more important than ever with the potential of labor shortages looming on the horizon. “We’ve got to keep them and make sure that they’re skilled.”

Boyle wears dual hats, as he is also the Northwest director of the Farmworker Institute for Education, Leadership and Development, a California-based nonprofit organization that provides farmworker training and educational opportunities. Boyle represents FIELD on the consortium’s board of directors.

Though most work force training seeks to improve the job skills of workers so they can find higher paying jobs, which would move farmworkers out of agriculture, he noted that the goal of the project is to improve the skill set of farmworkers so they can work more months of the year doing jobs across commodities. “By working more months, we can increase their wages. We’re focusing on keeping the ag workers but giving them multi-skills.”

He noted that many of the state programs focus solely on social needs of migrant workers. “State programs don’t engage in what the growers’ needs are. What we’ve done is focus on the needs of the grower and worker and not on the social services of the migrants. That has helped us become more successful.”

Skills

As part of the pilot project, Chemeketa Community College of Salem, Oregon, interviewed 35 growers in the targeted area to understand and assess the skills that growers are looking for in their work force. A private firm interviewed farmworkers to evaluate their needs and views.

“What we found, which is similar to results from other research, is that most of the workers want to stay in agriculture,” Boyle said. “Our goal is to keep farmworkers working more months out of the year in the area where they live.”

Workers participating in the training would receive certificates to document the skills they have achieved, be it in pruning, tractor work, or such.

Ultimately, workers within a given region would be skilled in enough different commodities that they would be able to easily move from crop to crop. In parts of Oregon, that could mean working in nurseries, small berries, wine grapes, tree fruit, and finally in Christmas trees.

Such sharing of labor doesn’t happen regularly today, he said, because there isn’t a system for growers to share information or their work needs with each other.

Boyle envisions a one-stop labor cooperative where growers could go to access skilled, certificated workers. The entity would not be a farm labor contractor, but a source to find skilled workers within a geographical area.

Initial discussions with growers in Washington State’s Skagit Valley and in eastern Washington have been held to gauge interest in a similar project, he said, adding that there is interest in some areas.

Funding

The consortium received $195,000 as part of discretionary funds of Oregon’s Workforce Investment Act. Nearly $150,000 of grant money and in-kind services came from FIELD, Boyle’s consulting firm, Tillamook Creamery, and the United Farmworkers of America.

Others serving on the consortium’s board include Bear Creek Orchard’s Ron Henri, Medford; Ken Bailey, Orchard View Farms, The Dalles; Jim McMullen and Mark Wustenberg of Tillamook County Creamery Association, Tillamook and Boardman; Dai Crisp, Temperance Hill Vineyards and Lumos Winery, McMinnville; Mary Olsen, Airlie Winery, Monmouth; Mike Gameroth of Oregon State University; Boyle; Liea Colligan, policy advisor to Gov. Kulongoski; and Arik Nicholson, UFW.