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Oregon Cowboys Hit Hard by Recession, Change

posted on February 5, 2010


SALEM, Ore. (AP) - John Moyer says he's never faced work prospects like these.

A lifelong cowboy, Moyer has worked for ranchers around Heppner, Ore., since the 1980s. Just before Thanksgiving, he and his wife, Celia, simultaneously lost the jobs they had held for several years on a local ranch.

Moyer said it was a first in two respects: his first time being laid off, and his first time leaving a job with no prospects in hand.

"There's not much work out there doing anything," he said. "We've been looking around, but there's just not that much work."

Moyer has thus joined an apparently growing number of agricultural workers finding it unusually difficult to find new employment in the trades they know. While accurate counts remain elusive, evidence suggests large numbers of unemployed workers who may not return to agriculture.

Now 63, Moyer started cowboying as a youngster raised in Oklahoma, taught by his father. To keep his income steady, he worked for two decades for a local school district, but never stopped cowboying on the side, breaking and training horses.

"They're not wanting to stick their neck out right now and hire people," he said of the area's ranching operations. "Everything's so uncertain."

While Oregon's ag employment declined last year, the drop was not as severe as those in other industries, said Dallas Fridley, an analyst with the state Employment Department.

The state's most recent figures show a 2.2 percent year-over-year drop, to 29,756 workers in crop and animal production, in the second quarter of 2009.

The numbers point out that food is always in demand, Fridley said.

"I actually think (being in agriculture) is kind of an advantage at this point in time," he said.

But Oregon, like most other states, is also showing drops in statewide employment - from 1.7 million employed in November 2008 to 1.6 million in November 2009.

Oregon added jobs annually from 2003 to 2007, then lost more than 10,000 in 2008. The state put its unemployment rate at 11.1 percent in November, up from 7.8 percent a year earlier.

That's part of a depressed global economy that has dragged down demand for U.S. beef and dairy products and reduced herd sizes. It also means more unemployed workers may compete for agriculture jobs, which are either holding steady or slightly decreasing.

In California, the numbers are similar. Gregorio Billikopf, a University of California labor adviser in the San Joaquin Valley, points to the construction industry's slide as a creator of competition for available farm jobs.

There's also the growing permanence of a foreign-born workforce, Billikopf said. With border enforcement strengthened in recent years, workers return home less often, bolstering the domestic workforce.

Every three years, Billikopf conducts a study of wages and labor supply for US dairies. In 2009, 16 percent of respondents said labor was "much easier" to find than it was three years earlier, up from 4 percent in the previous study; 21 percent said it was "easier," up from 10 percent previously.

"I think we are living through really hard times right now," Billikopf said. "We hear the economy is beginning to pick up again, but the people I talk to are not feeling that."

Mike McCann sees permanent changes coming to the workforce of the Central Valley. McCann is CEO of Proteus, a 42-year-old organization that that helps agricultural workers mitigate the impacts of unemployment.

With recovery among limping industries expected to be gradual, many workers will transition to skilled employment in industries with growing demand, McCann said.

Proteus is training workers to weatherize buildings and maintain high-tech irrigation equipment, skills with growing futures. New programs are also training workers to maintain the windmills that continue to multiply along the state's northern foothills and central coastline, as well as the solar arrays beginning to proliferate in the Central Valley.

"Ag workers are incredibly hard workers," McCann said. "They get to work on time, and they work hard while they're there. They already have the fundamental work ethics, the basics. We just need the work opportunities."

California is the nation's leading dairy producer, with the San Joaquin Valley its epicenter. The industry's contraction has combined with California's worsening water shortages to produce many thousands of acres of fallowed farmland, with farmers unsure of when they may plant again.

Solar power will continue expanding on that land, McCann said. Several developers are currently competing with utility PG&E to lock up land for future solar arrays, racing for a share of demand created by the state's Renewable Portfolio Standard.

"Agriculture is what I call the foundation of the value of this state," McCann said. "You can't let that go. What you can do is supplement it. There has been so much land retired on the (valley's) west side, it's just crying for solar farms. They need something more than agriculture for the long-term salvation of that area.

"It's a much bigger issue than what we can deal with," McCann said.

For John Moyer, job prospects hadn't improved much by mid-January. Opportunities were appearing for temporary work, and Moyer was hoping leads for full-time employment might appear by spring, when ranching activity picks up again.

"I believe if you're good at something and you enjoy it, that's what you should do," he said.

If prospects do appear, they may require moving to southern Oregon or Colorado, he said. Such a distance wouldn't have seemed so great in his younger days, but now it presents a daunting prospect. His roots are firmly planted on his spread near Heppner.

It would mean leaving the people he's known since the 1980s, when he first came to the area.

"I don't know that I want to pull up roots and go that far," he said. "But it may be something I have to do."


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