Labor Costs, Aging and More: Challenges Facing Lewis County Farmers Highlighted at Forum


Maureen Harkcom, 72, spoke to the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce as a representative of the Lewis County Farm Bureau on Thursday, discussing issues facing farmers in Lewis County and the state more broadly.

Harkcom, a member of the Lewis County Farm Bureau board, discussed the impact of government policies on farmers and the challenges they face.

“Agriculture is a very high-stress occupation,” Harkcom said. “When you look at issues like flooding, that happens to agriculture as well, but we also lost our livelihoods.”

Harkcom explained to the audience farmers are “price takers,” meaning they are subject to changes in the commodities market, presenting the industry with unique challenges beyond the difficult physical labor involved in food production.

“Agriculture is not for everybody. I grew up on a dairy. I can remember two vacations (growing up). There were no days off. It has to be in your blood,” Harkcom said.

According to Harkcom, the Farm Bureau’s purpose is to educate the public on the social and economic issues facing farming and ranching families. But the Bureau also tries to educate farmers about each other and the differences in experiences within the agricultural community.

“(That way) we can better advocate for each other,” Harkcom explained.

Harkcom said water has been a central issue for farmers, both with regard to flooding and water rights.

“If you don’t have water rights, trying to get them is years and years in the process, if you get them at all,” Harkcom said.

Another issue Harkcom said the agricultural industry is facing is labor costs.

“Washington’s labor costs are so high that companies like Fred Meyer will not purchase Washington agricultural products because they’re so expensive,” Harkcom said.

According to Harkcom, Southwest Washington farmers have faced particularly difficult challenges.

“It’s getting harder and harder to stay in agriculture in Lewis County,” Harkcom said. “Southwest Washington is unique in our geography and we’re able to farm. There’s not a lot of productive agricultural land in our county, so we have to use what we have and use it wisely.”

Harkcom pointed to a dramatic decrease in the number of dairy farms in Lewis County as an example of the effects the challenges farmers can face.

She also provided other statistics showing the challenges Lewis County farmers face, including the fact that about 85% of Lewis County farmers have jobs outside their farms to gain access to benefits such as health insurance.

One issue Harkcom believes contributes to the problems farmers face is the lack of understanding the public has of farming practices, which she believes can lead to some people reacting emotionally. One example of a situation involving a lack of public knowledge Harkcom provided was care for newborn animals. In Harkcom’s perspective, videos of newborn animals could lead uninformed viewers to believe farmers are mistreating the animals when in reality they’re taking necessary steps to care for them.

But for all the challenges Lewis County farmers face, they’re surprisingly successful in a variety of ways. According to Harkcom, Lewis County ranks number one in Washington state and number nine in the entire United States for Christmas tree production. She also said the county ranks eighth in the state for aquaculture, specifically highlighting Lewis County’s production of sports fish as one example of types of aquaculture produced in the county.

One of the greatest challenges facing the Lewis County agricultural industry is the rising age of farmers.

“As those of us with gray hair retire, we need younger people,” Harkcom said. “It’s not a cheap or easy venture, so we’re losing a lot of young kids.”

Harkcom said many children of farmers have expressed a desire to go into farming, driven by their families’ experience in agriculture. According to Harkcom, the obstacles to continuing their family tradition have been hard for those who have had to go into a different industry rather than following their parents’ path.

“It’s not just a job, it’s a way of life, it’s a philosophy,” Harkcom said.

Before ending her address to the chamber, Harkcom mentioned the Southwest Washington Livestock Auction at the Southwest Washington Fair, which she said is an opportunity to raise money for children. According to Harkcom, in the past, animals have sold for high enough prices to cover a significant portion of the child’s future college costs.

The livestock auction will take place on Friday, Aug. 19, with check-in opening at 4 p.m. and sales beginning at 6 p.m. at the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds.