Farm laborers play an essential, and often overlooked, role in the success of Washington state agriculture.
NONE OF US WOULD EAT if we didn’t have a farming landscape based on safety, innovation, and human touch. In Washington state we are fortunate to have so many locally grown items that fill our grocery store shelves and restaurant plates. None of that would be possible if we didn’t have people who work hard every day to care for our food and the lands where it is raised. From the laborers in the orchards and fields keeping them free from pests and harvesting a the peak of freshness, to the bookkeepers and managers who implement safety standards and ensure everyone is treated fairly, the heartbeat of a farm would collapse without the people involved caring deeply for the animals and plants they are growing.
Three of Washington's most abundant crops are especially dependent upon farm labor. Asparagus (above) can grow 7-9" each day and must be harvested by hand every day.
Sweet cherries (middle) always look so sweet and plump because they've been harvested, processed and packed by hand. Like asparagus, cherries must be harvested within a very brief window, or they will go bad.
Apples (bottom) are Washington's most famous fruit, and they also require gentle harvesting by human hands. Apple orchards account for nearly 1/4 of all agricultural employment in the state of Washington!
Farm labor is a hot topic in Washington, and it's something we need to discuss in order to really understand the full situation. As new technologies are implemented on the farm, labor needs have changed over the years, and both growers and farm laborers are adapting to the changes.
As machinery, computers, and GPS have changed how laborers do their jobs, they are still critical to a farm’s success. Farmers trust workers with thousands, if not millions, of dollars in equipment. Plus the millions of dollars invested in each crop. The trust between farm owners and workers is incredible and it’s part of the unique culture within agriculture.
On many Washington farms, the same farm workers return year after year. Many of them have been a part of the farm for years and are considered part of the family. Many workers also bring relatives and the next generation with them when they return for the season. Farmers create tight relationships with their workers, and it’s often a relationship that is passed down from generation to another. The importance of multi-generational farms goes beyond the owners. Laborers and owners have worked together for generations and they have a mutual respect for each other. They both need each other.
Farming is not an easy job. It’s never been easy work, just ask any farmer over 50. I remember as a kid picking rock, pulling weeds, and herding cows. Now, as an adult, I appreciate the sweat and grit that work taught me. The farm isn’t just a place or an 8-5 occupation. It is a life. And it takes many people to make it successful.
Since humans began harvesting food either through gathering native plants or by growing specific crops, it’s been hard work. How do we value that? No matter how technologically advanced equipment and systems become, there will always be an element of grit, tenacity, and labor required. As a person who eats, I’m so thankful there are farmers and workers who are willing to work hard and ensure my food is as safe, affordable, and delicious as possible.
Agriculture and food processing provide over 164,000 jobs in Washington state.
"Farm labor is really a critical part of the economic health of rural communities. What it brings in is not only employment on farms, but also employment in support industries like fertilizer and supplies. And then there are industries like processing, such as potato processing in the Tri-Cities, which is a huge industry.
Nearly half of those jobs are in crop production and animal production: planting, harvesting, and raising our food. Around one quarter of those jobs come from support industries that produce farm tools and equipment, fertilizers and pesticides, etc. The remaining jobs mostly come from food processing facilities and post-harvest crop activities like cleaning and transporting the harvest.
Prior to the 1900s, around three to four times as many people lived in rural areas compared to urban areas. Nowadays, it's flipped, and about twice as many people live in urban areas than in rural areas. As a result, a lot of people are becoming more separated from agriculture, and there are a lot less people producing. What happens, then, is kind of a hollowing out of middle America, where you don't have people as connected to the rural lifestyle and the rural communities. The problem with that is that those rural communities aren't as healthy. They don't have as vibrant of a support system, and they also don't have the workers to support that system. So, those workers really help to sustain that local economy."Madison Moore, Agriculture Economist, WSDA
purple of power the
Gary Larsen wanted to honor the legacy of his parents. In the process, he discovered a surprising way to help others.
The Columbia Basin is a diverse landscape of many different crops that can be grown in its mineral-rich soils watered by the Columbia River. One of our summer favorites is asparagus. These tender, green spears pop up out of the ground haphazardly across what seems to be a fallow landscape. However, when you look closer, you can see hundreds upon hundreds of asparagus plants poking up above the soil. Washington is the largest producer of asparagus in the United States. That asparagus is grown on one of the nearly 60 family asparagus farms in Washington.
We visited one of those families in Pasco to learn more about how they’ve made growing asparagus mean more than simply harvesting a crop. Gary Larsen’s family has been growing asparagus for generations, and over the decades, they have improved their methods and become more efficient. Asparagus acreage in Washington state has decreased dramatically over the years, going from around 32,000 acres when Larsen was a boy to now roughly 4,500 acres. However, farmers like Larsen are producing more asparagus now than ever before.
Larsen has also found a way to honor the legacy of his parents on the farm. Gary’s parents both passed away from Alzheimer’s disease, a disorder in which the brain's cells slowly degenerate over time, resulting in the loss of memory and other important functions. The Alzheimer's Foundation of America works to educate and support anyone affected by Alzheimer’s or dementia and funds research to find better treatments and a cure. Larsen wanted to work to support the Alzheimer's Foundation and its mission. Alzheimer's disease is often represented by a purple ribbon.
There are two varieties of asparagus, the typical green that you usually see, and purple. Purple asparagus makes up only a small percentage of the market, which is why it might be unfamiliar to you. Purple asparagus grows thicker stalks and has a sweeter flavor than the traditional green variety. Larsen saw an opportunity to cultivate purple asparagus to support the Alzheimer’s Foundation.
“I thought, ‘What a great way to raise money.’ It was a way of moving this asparagus for a good cause,” says Larsen. In the first year of the fundraiser, Larsen was able to earn $35,000 from just one acre of purple asparagus. Now, three years later, Larsen continues to produce the prized purple crop and raise money for the cause.
Today, there are 6.7 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease. That number is expected to increase to 13 million by 2050. Larsen encourages everyone to check out the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America at their website (alzfdn.org) where you can learn more about it and make a donation. The power of purple is mighty, not only when it comes to feeding Americans, but also in fighting against Alzheimer’s and dementia.
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King Salmon Seared with
8-10 ounces asparagus
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Hollandaise Sauce Ingredients
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2/3 cup clarified unsalted butter
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 king salmon fillet portions (6 to 7 ounces each), skin on,pin bones removed
2 teaspoons finely chopped chives
1/4 teaspoon salt, more to taste
Pinch cayenne pepper
Salmon Seared Asparagus
Complexity: Medium • Time: 40 minutes • Serves: 2
“This might be a dish with salmon, but really the asparagus is the star of the show here,” notes chef Kevin Murray when preparing this recipe on Episode 11 of the current season. Cooking time for the salmon will vary with fillet’s thickness and your doneness preference. Chef Murray served this with a salad of thinly shaved raw asparagus, tender frisée and pickled red onions tossed with lemon oil.
Snap the tough ends from the asparagus spears. Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil and prepare a large bowl of ice water. Add the asparagus to the boiling water and cook for 30 seconds, then drain and add to the ice water. Set aside to fully cool, then drain the asparagus and dry well.
For the hollandaise, put about an inch of water in the lower portion of a double boiler or in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then reduce heat to medium-low. Put the egg yolks in the top of the double boiler or in a metal bowl that will perch easily over the water in the pan. Whisk the yolks to blend, then whisk in the lemon juice. Set the yolks over the warm water and whisk constantly until thickened in volume and lightened in color, 2 to 3 minutes. While continuing to whisk, slowly add the clarified butter in a thin stream. When all the butter is added and the mixture is light and creamy, remove the bowl from the pan (reserving the warm water in the pan). Whisk the chives, salt, and cayenne into the sauce and taste for seasoning, adding more lemon juice or salt if need-
ed. Set the sauce back over the water (off the heat) to keep warm while cooking the salmon.
Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Pat the salmon skin dry and season the salmon with salt. Add 1 tablespoon oil to the skillet and swirl to evenly coat the bottom. Add the salmon skin-side down and cook undisturbed until the skin is nicely browned and crisp, about 2 minutes. Turn the pieces over and cook until just a touch of translucence remains at the center, 2 to 4 minutes, or to your taste. Set the salmon aside on a plate, skin side up.
In another large skillet, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Add the blanched asparagus with a pinch of salt and pepper and cook until heated through and a bit browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the lemon juice and toss gently.
To serve, put the salmon pieces, skin side up, in the center of warmed plates. Add the asparagus, drizzle the hollandaise over both, and serve right away.
RAY'S BOATHOUSE SEATTLE
Ray's Boathouse, located on the Bal lard waterfront, is a true Seattle in stitution. The James Beard Foundation Award-winning seafood restaurant is celebrating 50 years of serving fresh and sustainable seafood and has a loyal following of guests and visitors who enjoy its simple, fresh ingredients cooked to perfection.
In 1976, Ray's founding partner and chef, Russ Wohler, sought out sea food that he could purchase direct from fisherpeople. Ray’s had a wholesale fish buyer’s license and bought fish right off the boats that fished in Puget Sound in front of the restaurant. That freshness has been a consistent priority in the years since then. Despite fires, recessions and a pandemic, Ray's has evolved and adapted to the changing city around it while staying true to its roots.
"As a kid, I used to come visit Seattle every summer,” said Executive Chef Kevin Murray. “I would come to Ray's, sit on the deck, and eat fish and chips. I feel like I’ve been raised in the kitchen by Ray’s.”
Murray, who worked his way up at Ray's, leads an energetic and creative team in the kitchen. The entire staff knows that Ray's is a special place for Seattleites, as it has been the setting for many memories, from birthdays to family gatherings.
“Our guests are incredibly special and the reason we’ve been doing this for 50 years. We’ve seen generation after generation return to Ray’s with their kids and their kids after them,” said Douglas Zellers, Ray’s general manager and co-owner. “We have so many guests who become engaged and then married at Ray’s. It’s truly a magical place with a rich history, and I’m honored to be a part of it and shepherd in the start of the next 50 years.”
The Boathouse offers thoughtfully composed plates, craft cocktails, and award-winning wine lists, while the upstairs cafe offers classic seafood dishes with seasonal preparations for lunch, happy hour and dinner daily. With outstanding local seafood, renewed energy within its local, independent ownership, and a strong community bond, Ray's looks forward to serving many more generations of guests.
Washington state is the largest grower of asparagus in the United States. In 2020, approximately 19.3 million pounds were harvested in the state.
DID YOU KNOW?
Asparagus are perennial plants that are very long-lived and can last up to 25 years. Asparagus plants have been known to live for 100 years.
Asparagus can grow as much as 10 inches in one day in peak season! An asparagus farmer must harvest each field of asparagus every day of the season, by hand.
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Come late spring and early summer, the dinner tables of Washingtonians will be accompanied by one of our favorite fresh vegetables – asparagus. Washington leads the United States in asparagus production. We visited Columbia Valley Farms in Pasco to learn more about how asparagus is grown and processed.
Why is Washington ideal for growing asparagus?
The hot summer days with cool nights, coupled with the mineral-rich sandy soils of the Columbia Basin, makes for excellent asparagus-growing conditions. Our state's hardworking farmers hand-harvest asparagus from early April into the third week of June in a typical growing year. Currently, there are around 4,500 acres of asparagus grown in Washington each year.
Where does all that asparagus go?
Seventy-five percent of Columbia Valley Farm’s asparagus is fresh packed and sold to consumers all over Washington and the U.S. The other 25% is jarred and pickled. The fresh asparagus spears are tightly packed into jars with various spices and covered in a saltwater and vinegar solution. This makes for a delicious snack any time of the year.
Asparagus Washington's King of Spring
How do farmers cover all of those acres?
Harvesting asparagus is an extremely labor intensive task. There are no machines designed to pick asparagus, so it’s all done by hand. The plants are cut one by one at the base and then transported to a processing facility. Asparagus fields have to be harvested nearly every day to ensure that fragile new growth is harvested at the right time.
How do I get some of that asparagus?
Chances are you already have! Washington asparagus is sold in grocery stores around the country. If you're more interested in the pickled varieties, Foster’s Pickled Asparagus is available in stores across Washington state and is offered in multiple flavors.
The next time you find yourself in the produce section reaching for asparagus, think about the many hands that touched that bunch of spears before your own. Delightful when grilled or sautéed, perfect when incorporated into a quiche, and tasty when pickled, asparagus is a versatile option for any mealtime. Go forth and enjoy the bounty of Washington asparagus while appreciating the hard work it takes to get it from the field to your table.
ASPARAGUS AKA SPARROW GRASS
Crunchy, tangy and preserved in a delicious blend of dill, garlic and seasonings, Foster's Pickled Asparagus is a favorite among shoppers in Washington.
crops understanding cover
What are cover crops?
Cover crops are crops planted in areas that would otherwise be bare ground, such as between rows of cash crops or over entire fields between the time a cash crop is harvested and the next one is planted. Plants used as cover crops vary, but some examples include rye, clover, buckwheat and mustard seed.
In Roman history, they planted cover crops between rows of grapevines. President George Washington planted clover and grass cover crops to replenish his soil. In the 1930s, farmers were encouraged to adopt conservation farming techniques – including planting cover crops – to help end the Dust Bowl.
Why are cover crops important?
Cover crops keep soil in place, which is important because farms are more vulnerable to soil loss when fields are bare. Wind, rain and snowmelt can easily whisk away bare soil. But when a farmer plants a cover crop, the plant canopy and roots keep soil in place.
Cover crops also provide other benefits, including decreasing pollution, improving rain filtration, controlling weeds, and creating habitat for vital microorganisms. Usage of cover crops has increased by 50% between 2012-2017.
What is being done to make cover crops easier and more affordable for farmers?
Cover crops still mean extra time, labor and costs for farmers up front. Farmers sacrifice vital resources to plant them. Conservation districts, state and federal agencies, and others are trying to make cover crops easier and more affordable.
For example, last summer, the Washington State Conservation Commission launched the Sustainable Farms and Fields program that includes funding and assistance for farmers who plant cover crops. Through Washington’s Soil Health Initiative, researchers and potato growers are exploring cover crop strategies that not only improve soil health but maximize yields.