Labor, high input costs a challenge

Onion grower-shippers in Idaho and eastern Oregon's Treasure Valley continue to fight higher input costs and labor shortages.

Like many other growers, Paul Skeen, owner of Skeen Farms Inc., Nyssa., Ore., is sold on drip irrigation.

"Drip produces a much higher-quality onion, in my opinion. We've gone to a higher percentage of drip, and I think most have. The area is probably 60% drip."

Adding drip costs money, though, Skeen said, and it's not the only higher input cost faced by valley growers.

At $9.50 an hour, Oregon has one of the highest minimum wages in the country. Eventually it will rise to $12.50, significantly higher than Idaho's $7.25 an hour.

"It's making it tough on the borderline guys," Skeen said.

Drip irrigation, labor and other rising input costs are making it harder for valley growers to turn a profit.

"It's costing us more and more to grow, but we're getting less out of it."

The higher minimum wage in Oregon may have one silver lining, however. The discrepancy between Idaho and Oregon wages can lure workers to the west side of the Snake River.

"I haven't had a problem with labor, but I'm told that on the Idaho side they've had problems, and it's caused them to raise prices right on the border."

Also, the increase in drip irrigation in some parts of the area and pivot and sprinkler irrigation in others has saved growers on labor and water, Skeen said.

Labor continues to weigh heavily on Treasure Valley growers, agreed Chris Woo, national sales manager for Idaho and Oregon for Murakami Produce, Ontario, Ore.

"It's tough, and it's getting tougher every year."

Fortunately for Murakami and other valley growers, mechanization of harvest, grading and packing means fewer workers are needed.

With a long harvest season, Woo has no worries about the crop going unharvested.

"We have all of August, September and October to harvest. It will get done eventually."

Nyssa-based Snake River Produce that even with the higher minimum wage Oregon companies have trouble getting enough workers, said Tiffany Cruickshank, transportation manager and saleswoman.

"It's not as big of a problem as in Idaho, but we're still seeing a shortage."

The dimensions of Snake River's shed have prevented it from doing some automation, Cruickshank said. The company is looking at automatic palletizers, for example, but its ceiling isn't high enough for some models.