Idaho growers back use of prison labor

An Idaho Senate bill would provide farms with inexpensive workers during shortages.

zkyle@idahostatesman.comMarch 19, 2014 

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge would rather see Idaho orchards full of prison inmates than apples and peaches left unpicked on branches or rotting on the ground.

Lodge, R-Huston, is the sponsor of Senate Bill 1374, which would allow agricultural operations to hire Idaho prison inmates at minimum wage. The bill, which passed the Senate and headed to the House, would safeguard farms from losing crops because of labor shortages like the one experienced by Southwest Idaho orchard owners during the 2013 harvest.

Lodge, who owns the Wind Ridge Vineyard near Huston, says she pursued the bill after watching fruit farmers in the region lose $100,000 in yields in unpicked peaches and $300,000 in unpicked and damaged apples.

"One of saddest things I saw this fall was to see the fruit on the ground because they couldn't find laborers to pick it, and then in the winter, to see apples still on trees in Sunnyslope," she told the Senate.

The program is voluntary for inmates. Only low-risk prisoners could participate. The cost incurred by the Department of Correction to transport inmates to farms and provide security would be paid out of the inmates' wages. The work would give inmates a way to pay child support or any restitution or penalties owed from their convictions, proponents say.

Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, says he supports the bill in part because he observed a similar program that put inmates to work taking soil samples for nematode testing near St. Anthony. "They seemed to be happy to be getting out and getting exercise," he says.

Mike Williamson, owner of the 150-acre Williamson Orchards and Vineyards in Caldwell, says he had to borrow 30 workers last year to harvest his peaches before they spoiled. Williamson pays between minimum wage and $15 an hour, depending on the position.

"I think everybody deserves a second chance," he says. "As long as everything is safe and above board, then I think it sounds like a good idea."

Ron Kelley, owner of Kelley Orchards in Weiser, says he hired the 10 workers he needed last year to harvest his small crop. He's willing to pay between $12 and $20 an hour for his returning workers who know how to handle the apples, peaches, plums and other fruit to prevent bruising.

Kelley wasn't aware that a bill could open the door for orchard owners to hire inmate workers, and he says he'd be hesitant to hire inmates or anybody else without fruit-handling experience. But he says he'd change his tune quickly if his fruit was wasting, especially if he had more acreage to harvest.

"I would be leery of it, because you can ruin a lot of fruit if you don't know what you're doing," Kelley says. "But if I was in a position where I had to either harvest it or lose it, yeah, I'd take that option."

The bill would allow farmers to hire inmates to grow, harvest or process perishable Idaho crops. The bill says inmates cannot be hired unless a farmer is unable to hire enough workers on the free market.

Lodge says the bill could help the state's 53 percent recidivism rate by giving inmates a line on their resumes.

"The lack of work experience is one reason why ex-inmates can't get a job," Lodge says. "This will help them get the work ethic and skill that will help them when they're released."

Zach Kyle: 377-6464, Twitter: @IDS_zachkyle

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