Roughly eight weeks before the lawmakers reconvene in the state Capitol, Senate Republicans unveiled the agricultural problems they hope to tackle, which range from overtime requirements for agricultural workers to a lack of agricultural education.
The Cultivate Washington plan, released Wednesday, identifies seven problems the Senate Republicans hope to address in the Legislature when lawmakers return in January. Following the announcement, Senate Republicans outlined their plan to address the state’s agricultural needs in a press conference with Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Whidbey Island, Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, Sen. Perry Dozier, R-Waitsburg, and Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy.
“For too long, the agricultural community in Washington has faced neglect or even hostility in the state Legislature, despite their significant contributions to our state,” Warnick said. “We need to do everything we can to support our agricultural communities with sustainable and common-sense policies.”
The seven problems identified by Senate Republicans include:
• Labor costs and overregulation
• The cost of fuel
• The struggle of small and midsize farms to compete
• The availability of water
• The state’s management of predators and wildlife
• Poor societal knowledge of where food comes from
• A lack of support for the state’s dairy farmers
“Agriculture is really the lifeblood of our state, our nation and our world,” Short said. “Our system works so well that we don’t often think about where our food comes from. But we got a wake-up call when COVID disrupted our supply chains, and we started seeing empty shelves in supermarkets. In Olympia, we see relentless attacks on agriculture and an attitude that no amount of regulation is ever enough. Yet the health of our society depends on the security and quality of our food supply, and the government needs to recognize the importance of a vibrant agricultural sector.”
A focus on water
According to Warnick, discussions around water will be key, impacting communities from Seattle to the Eastern Washington city of Lind.
“There isn’t enough water, even on the wet, west side,” Warnick said.
The Cultivate Washington plan identifies “water availability” as one of the problems legislators must address, with the plan proposing continued support of the Yakima, Icicle and Walla Walla integrated plans, and continued “coordination efforts” to complete the Columbia Basin project.
In response to a question about whether legislators anticipated any significant developments with the Chehalis Basin strategy, Warnick said she was involved in discussions in developing the Office of the Chehalis Basin, and that she would approach Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, about receiving an update on the project, noting much of the authority has been given “to the counties, the tribes and the local folks to decide how to solve those problems.”
“We have spent money in the past, and it’s time to take a look at what’s going on down there,” Warnick said.
Labor costs and overregulation
With the overtime threshold for agricultural workers set to fall to 40 hours per week in the new year, Senate Republicans will again push for a partial exemption.
Four Senators, including Warnick, sponsored legislation during the 2023 session that would allow agricultural employers to select 12 weeks a year where workers could work for up to 50 hours a week before overtime pay is required.
The proposal did not advance out of the Senate Committee on Labor and Commerce.
“It has had a tremendous effect across Washington State,” Sen. Perry Dozier, R-Waitsburg, said of the state’s overtime requirements.
The Legislature overwhelmingly voted in 2021 to require that farm workers receive overtime pay, with Dozier and Short among six senators who voted no on the proposal. The bill passed the Senate 42-6 and the House 91-7.
During a Senate Labor and Commerce hearing on the seasonal exemption on Feb. 9, sponsor and ranking member Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said the legislation would address the “seasonality” of Washington’s agriculture.
“I think it’s a fair and equitable thing to do, not just for the farmer, but for the worker as well,” Dozier said.
At the hearing, Committee chair Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, noted nearly 2,000 people had voiced their opinion to the committee, with 1,048 in support and 894 in opposition. Following roughly 45 minutes of testimony, the legislature did not take further action on the proposal.
Coming to a classroom near you
While much of the plan addresses the problems faced by current farmers, the Senate Republicans also want to encourage the next generation of agricultural workers. The Cultivate Washington plan includes support for “agriculture in the classroom” and the Future Farmers of America program.
“I think it’s very important that we look to the future and try to help the youth in this state to understand what agriculture means to Washington state,” Dozier said. “Especially since we are an economic driver in Washington State.”