Effective Jan. 1, Washington’s minimum wage increased 13 cents to $9.32 an hour. It is the nation’s highest state minimum wage. It is more than $2 higher than the federal minimum wage and has increased every year since 1999, when it was $5.70.
“It’s been going up every year, and it just keeps going,” said Harry Hamada, manager of Walla Walla River Packing and Storage LLC, Walla Walla, Wash.
Grower-shippers said increasing costs and stagnant returns are hurting the region’s onion industry.
“I don’t know what they’re trying to prove,” said Ben Cavalli, owner of Cavalli’s Onion Acres, Walla Walla. “There are certain jobs that can only pay so much.”
Despite the nation’s highest minimum wage, Cavalli said Walla Walla growers and packers have had a hard time finding adequate labor.
“There’s not enough people,” he said. “The government has people tied up.”
Cavalli said last year Walla Walla onions sold for about $10 per 40-pound box. He said prices haven’t varied much in several years.
“After packaging costs and harvest costs, that doesn’t leave very much (profit) does it?” he said. “We haven’t had a good onion year in about five years, and it gets harder every year.”
Two years ago, Walla Walla Gardeners, a cooperative that was one of the area’s three largest onion shippers, auctioned off its facility. The nearly 100-year-old company closed after a declining grower base and poor onion pricing led to bankruptcy.
The region has about 700 acres of sweet onions, down from 1,800 a decade ago. Cavalli said some of that lost acreage is being used to grow other crops, such as alfalfa, corn and wheat as well as grapes for local wineries.
Cavalli, 67, said he’s considering selling the 40-acre farm his family has owned for three generations and retiring.
“I’m tired of fighting it,” he said of increasing labor costs and regulations. “It just doesn’t pay any more. If we don’t make some money this year, I’m sure there will be some other farmers looking to hang it up.”