A total of 2,015 workers are losing their jobs at three fruit-production companies in Wapato and Selah, Washington, which are located in Central Washington near Yakima.
The workers will be rehired by the company that recently acquired the three companies and consolidated their assets under a new entity called Columbia River Orchards. Both full-time and seasonal workers, however, will have to go through a rehiring process that includes verifying citizenship status via a Form I-9 employment eligibility verification.
A report commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Federation indicates that about half of all hired farm workers nationwide are undocumented immigrants. Given that reality, it is probable that a number of the workers losing their jobs will not be rehired by Columbia River Orchards because they can’t meet citizenship or visa requirements.
The layoffs at the acquired companies – Legacy Fruit Packers (199 layoffs), Valley Fruit (1,009 layoffs) and Larson Fruit (807 layoffs) – were made public through WARN Act notifications filed with the state. Toby McKay, interim general manager for Columbia River Orchards, says the company has already notified the terminated workers that they should reapply for their jobs.
“We are going to need the same number of people, or more, to work at the new company [Columbia River Orchards],” he says. “They will have to go through the normal job-hiring process, which includes the I-9 requirements.”
McKay adds that Columbia River Orchards expects to employ about 426 workers through the H-2A visa program for foreign nationals who are temporary or seasonal workers, a similar number as were employed by the acquired companies.
“I do not know if any workers [employed by the acquired companies] will be affected by their immigration status,” he adds. “If they are not in the country legally, it’s probable that they will not be rehired [absent a change of status].”
A North Carolina investment firm, International Farming Corp. (IFC), acquired Legacy Fruit Packers, Valley Fruit and Larson Fruit on Dec. 20 of last year, McKay confirmed. Seattle Business magazine reported last week that the acquisition included some 4,000 acres of orchards; two packing facilities with the capability of producing 4 million boxes of fruit annually; interests in Sage Fruit, a marketing company based in Yakima; and Pacific Coast Cherry Packers in Wapato.
At the time of the original report, the full extent or purpose of the layoffs was not clear, but additional WARN Act notices dug up by Seattle Business have shed more light on what is happening in the wake of the acquisition.
The three acquired tree-fruit companies, previously owned by the Larson and Verbrugge families, are being combined into a single company called Columbia River Orchards, Seavy Dickson, a spokesman with IFC, confirms. IFC this past fall announced plans to raise $1.5 billion for a fund focused on investments in U.S. farm operations. A report in Global AgInvesting, which tracks investment trends in the agricultural industry, notes that because of an oversupply of apples, cherries and packing houses, “industry watchers were noting that the Washington State tree-fruit sector was set for a shift toward consolidation.”
Seavy says IFC is “using third-party consultants to help [IFC] navigate” the acquisition and reorganization. He adds that although he can’t provide specific numbers, the newly formed Columbia River Orchards is retaining the existing jobs at the acquired companies and also “expects to grow the employee base across its platform.”
The WARN Act requires employers with 100 or more workers to notify workers 60 days prior to any closure or layoffs. Companies also must provide written notice to the Washington Employment Security Department and the top elected official in the community where the layoff or closure is occurring.