May 26, 2002
The Wage Canary and the price of Asparagus
is the title of an editorial in today's Seattle Times, and it is instructive. Washington state has the highest minimum wage in the nation ($6.90/hour), and its ramifications are beginning to affect the eastern portion of the state, which is an agricultural region. The biggest problem is that the cost-of-living increases in the minimum wage (courtesy of Prop 688, in 1998) are tied to Seattle, where the cost of living is increasing faster than that of Pasco or Walla Walla. Further, Seattle's unemployment rate is 5.4%, while it is as high as 11.4% in places such as rural Columbia County, home to an asparagus and carrot processing plant. As labor costs continue to increase, produce becomes less competitive with offerings from other regions and from countries such as Peru. The result is that farming is declining in those areas, and finding industry to replace farming will be difficult, especially in the more remote communities.
Asparagus is considered a bellwether crop (the "canary" of the headline, as in "canary in the coal mine"), and a drop in asparagus production imply that other crops may be in trouble too. Seneca, which owns the plant in Columbia county, slashed 24% of the land they contracted with local growers from previous years, so it is not a small drop we are talking about (7100 acres are planted with asparagus this year).