Steve Sakuma knows everything about this farm.
He can tell you how his father got it started, how his son runs it now and what he hopes future generations will do with it.
He’ll even tell you that his family has cut corners, and that they haven’t always done their best.
But when you ask him why farm labor advocates have coalesced around Sakuma Bros. Farms as a target for boycotts and legal action, he says he can’t tell you the answer.
“We’re a big company. We know that we’re big enough and have been around long enough that we have to follow certain rules,” he told me, in the first interview anyone from the Sakuma family has given since labor unrest began at their Skagit Valley operation last summer. “We may do things wrong, we may interpret things to probably favor us—we do those things. But we’re not dumb, and we certainly don’t abuse people.”
Hundreds of workers walked off of the fields at the Burlington farm several times throughout the 2013 growing season with complaints about wages, working conditions and the farm’s use of the federal guest worker program.
The harvest season is long over now, but the same problems are still facing the 85-year-old CEO of Sakuma Bros. Farms.
First among them, a class-action lawsuit filed in October with the U.S. District Court in Seattle. Farm worker attorneys claim the company failed to honor wage agreements or pay berry pickers for all the work performed, and that they didn’t provide rest breaks required by state law. Sakuma denies the claims.
A Hard History
Sakuma Bros. wasn’t always such a big company, and the labor equation used to be a lot simpler.
Steve Sakuma grew up on the farm in the 1940s, when berries were mostly picked by kids. There were more than 1,000 young people from around Skagit Valley working in the fields back then.
“If you were a kid, 8 years old and up, you were out on the field. If you wanted a social life in the summer time, you were out on the field,” Sakuma says. “You were out there 14 hours a day, seven days a week from the day you got out of school until the day you got back.”
He says it’s how many young people raised enough money to go to college.
The farm had long meant opportunity for his family, too. Sakuma’s grandparents immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s and started a small farm on Bainbridge Island. They grew strawberries and other crops, mostly to supply vendors at Pike Place Market.
They stayed there until the 1930s, when Seattle processing company R. D. Bodle helped the Sakumas and two other Japanese families relocate their farms to the Skagit Valley so they’d be closer to the processing plant.
Sakuma’s father Atsusa was the first to make the trip north and, one by one, his brothers joined after their high school graduations.
Four of the eight Sakuma brothers were living and working at the Burlington farm by 1941—when the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor. The entire family was forcibly evacuated to internment camps around the west—starting with those who lived in Bainbridge Island, an area with a large Japanese population.
By May, the brothers in Burlington were interned as well. Atsusa Sakuma found a neighboring family to look after the farm.
Six of the eight brothers were drafted in the U.S. military straight out the camps. And unlike many other Japanese Americans, when they returned, they got their property back and kept on farming.
Since then, the family farm has gotten a lot bigger—supplying brands like Haagen-Dazs, Yoplait, Driscoll’s and Charlie’s Produce, and expanding to California, where they run a nursery business.
The Fight Over Guest Workers
Farms in Eastern Washington have been using the federal guest worker program for years. But Sakuma says this year was the first time the Burlington farm, or any other western Washington fruit grower, brought in foreign workers for the harvest.
Farm owners insist that’s where the trouble started.
“The labor unrest is not about Sakuma,” Sakuma’s son and farm president Ryan Sakuma said in an open letter in October. “It’s about labor activists’ opposition to a federal guest worker program.”
The H-2A federal guest worker program allows agricultural companies to bring in workers from other countries to fill temporary labor shortages.
Sakuma Bros. Farms used the program to bring in more than 150 Mexican guest workers for the harvest last summer. As a requirement of the program, they had to pay an elevated minimum wage of $12 per hour to both the guest workers and the locals they hired.
But domestic farm workers and labor activists didn’t like the decision, arguing it was a bargaining chip to drive down wages.
“It’s a threat to advocacy groups, it’s a threat to immigration reform and it’s a threat to the path to citizenship. I get that.” Steve Sakuma says. “But the outcomes some of these advocacy groups are looking for are the same we’re looking for: A stable, legal, cost-effective workforce.”
Washington is in the midst of big conversation about labor reform, from the push for a $15 minimum wage in urban service jobs, to open hearings by state lawmakers to discuss agricultural workforce changes.
The fact is, nobody really likes the current guest worker system. A major overhaul and possible expansion is high on the immigration reform agenda of both parties.
“The H-2A program is brutal. It’s not easy to use and there are a lot of things that can go wrong; a lot to oversee in the program,” Roxana Macias, H-2A/H-2B manager at the Washington Farm Labor Association said at a recent House Labor and Workforce Development committee hearing. “It’s very expensive to use and federal agencies are hostile to the 50 or so employers statewide who are using it.”
She said farms are only eligible to use the program if they can prove a shortage of able and willing domestic workers. But that’s not easily done.
In 2007, a group of Yakima valley laborers won a $1.8 million lawsuit against local apple farms who a judge ruled didn’t follow the proper protocols in establishing a shortage of local laborers.
A Sakuma Bros. spokesperson said that in the past two seasons, the farm has left nearly 500,000 pounds of berries unpicked.
“We recognized that our available labor pool has been shrinking and in order to harvest our crops we needed to supplement our labor pool and our only viable option was to apply for the Federal H2A Guest Worker Program,” Ryan Sakuma wrote in the October letter.
Striking farm workers earlier this year disputed the labor shortage and said if the farm paid more and improved working conditions, they’d be able to draw enough workers from the existing labor force. Steve Sakuma insists that’s just not a viable option.
“We’ve got limited resources and we’re trying to run an effective, efficient operation, so I’ve got to apply resources where I can,” he says. “It’s just the reality of business.”
Lower Wages, Lower Prices
Farm worker groups estimated Sakuma Bros. Farms’ value at $6 million last year. But Steve Sakuma disputes that number. He says the farm’s value and gross income doesn’t indicate the amount they have to spare.
Most of the profit, he says, is poured right back into operations. Profit margins for most businesses are at least 15 percent, but not in farming, where Sakuma estimates 5 percent is probably the best his business ever nets.
And competition is tough for a farm that’s up against the rest of the nation for the consumer’s dollar.
Washington has the highest minimum wage in the country, at $9.32. Farmers in places like South Carolina, Georgia and 36 other states can legally pay the federal minimum wage of $7.25. But they all sell their berries on the same national market.
Sakuma frames the question of higher wages and labor costs as a zero sum game.
He says the wage increases workers are asking for would make the farm less competitive, and that it could eliminate job opportunities for unskilled workers.
“There’s no free lunch out there,” he says. “If I’m going to pay somebody higher than minimum wage, I’m going to look for someone with a higher than minimum skill set. You can’t drive efficiency by setting a pay scale.”
Still, some berry pickers who worked for Sakuma say they weren’t even paid the state minimum wage last season, because the per pound piece rate was set so low.
Columbia Legal Services, the firm representing farm workers in the pending class action lawsuit, estimates the case will involve at least 400 laborers from the past three years. The case is still in the discovery phase, meaning attorneys on both sides are still gathering information, and a judge won’t issue a scheduling order until June—right around the start of the next growing season. An attorney working on the case said he expects farm workers involved with the case will return to work this year.
In the meantime, Steve Sakuma continues to insist his farm is up to legal regulations, and that’s the best he can do.
“I’m pouring dollars into this business to be able to keep it alive so I can pass it on to the next generation,” he says. “And people say, ‘You owe it to your workers to make sure they’re paid this amount of money and have this standard of living.’ My question is, where’s that money going to come from?”
That’s where consumers have to make their own decisions. Those boycotting Sakuma Bros. products may be taking a principled stand against what they see as one bad apple in a farm labor economy that’s mostly rotten.
But the tough part is, the conscientious consumer would be hard pressed to identify better alternatives. There is no labeling system that ranks or regulates agricultural products based on labor standards. So even if we were be willing to pay more for our berries to ensure better labor conditions, right now we don’t really have that option.
This story originally appeared in the Seattle Globalist (seattleglobalist.com). Ashley Stewart is a Seattle-based freelance journalist and student at the University of Washington. She covers state government for The Seattle Times as a legislative reporting intern and formerly worked as a reporter for The Herald in Everett. Find her on Twitter: @ashannstew.