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High minimum wage and an evolving labor pool make for rough competition in the national nursery industry

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Farm Manager Chris Lee shows Oregon Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici a Dwarf Globe Blue Spruce during her tour at Eshraghi Nurseries in Hillsboro.Nine years ago, when the country plunged into an economic recession, nurseries in Washington County had little trouble finding the workers needed to power one of Oregon's most important exporters.

Around one-third of nurseries folded in that time, but for those who survived the recession, the business looks far different now. The economy is on the rise, nearing record-low unemployment levels in Washington County in the last year, and like the summer landscape, the nursery workforce is drying up.

"No one walks through the door," said Linda Eshraghi, founder and namesake of her company, Eshraghi Nurseries, south of Hillsboro. "We have a sign out all the time that says 'help wanted,' and nobody comes in and says, 'Hey, I'm looking for a job.' It doesn't happen."

Eshraghi Nurseries, 26985 S.W. Farmington Road, welcomed U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici for a tour and meeting with local nursery owners last week. Bonamici met several workers at Eshraghi, examined the process of grafting and growing Japanese maples and watched as workers loaded trucks bound for the east coast.

Bonamici and the nursery owners then visited Farmington Gardens, Eshraghi Nurseries' retail arm, in rural Beaverton.

Workers told their stories — one came to the United States as a teenager, washing dishes and picking fruit before finding a job at the nursery, where he's now a manager. Another thanked nursery owners for providing a stable job for him to provide for his wife and nine-month-old child.

One woman proudly boasted of her two children, one of whom is nearing graduation at Oregon State University.

The promise of a better life for your kids, a better life than that of your parents, is among the challenges facing the nursery industry, Eshraghi said, as the children of longtime workers trend toward higher education and non-agricultural jobs as a way to get ahead.

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Rep. Suzanne Bonamici surveys seedlings at Eshraghi Nurseries last week."If there's a young guy that wants physical work, that's what it is," she said. "That's what we do all the time. I think it's the industry. It's agriculture. They're thinking, 'I'm not going to work on a farm.'"

There's a stigma to farming she doesn't remember from her years spent in strawberry fields with her family, where kids would work the farm in the summertime. Now, if there's other work to be had, her workforce is elsewhere.

Steve Gold, of Gold Hill Nursery at 11715 S.W. Hillsboro Highway, said the pull isn't just toward clean, indoor jobs. Landscapers often pull away the nursery's workers in the summertime, paying laborers a dollar or two more than they were making at the nursery for short-term work.

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Eshraghi Nursery co-owner Linda Eshraghi speaks with Oregon Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici during a tour at Eshraghi Nurseries last week."That two bucks is enough, and they're willing to work for those two bucks and figure out what to do afterward, instead of us who are trying to be consistent," Gold said. "We're trying to give a job year-round, but because they're trying to live and they've got to go where the money will take them."

Wages, according to Eshraghi, aren't really the problem. Her nursery pays workers above Oregon's minimum wage for businesses outside the Portland Metro urban growth boundary. Regardless of training or experience, an employee can earn $11 an hour — but workers still don't come if other employment can be found, she said.

Eshraghi said fruit growers — strawberries, blueberries and others — are hardest hit by an evaporating labor force. Unlike a Douglas fir, ripening blueberries can't wait for workers to return from other projects.

"Families would come for the spring, and then they would go back. It'd be five weeks because that's how the industry was. They could leave and go to strawberries or go home and come back again."

Now, only a handful of Eshraghi Nurseries workers migrate with the seasons.

High wages creates another problem for area nurseries. During the meeting with Bonamici, Eshraghi said Oregon's minimum wage is hurting national sales. Out of state companies are able to out-compete with lower labor costs.

Both Eshraghi and Gold Hill move product around the country, where many states abide simply by the federal minimum wage: $7.25 per hour.

Bonamici said she would support raising the federal minimum wage to give Oregon companies a better advantage in the national market, adding a raise would help families be self-sufficient and require fewer social services, she said. Numerous attempts to raise the federal minimum wage have failed in recent years, despite widespread support by the democratic party.

Bonamici said several steps are needed to expand the workforce, including immigration reform.

"One of the other steps is making sure that people understand that there are good jobs to be had in this industry and that it's very rewarding — working with your hands, growing things," said Bonamici. "It's a very good career."

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