Whether pulling weeds, picking berries or driving machinery, many people found their first job on a farm.
For Umatilla County kids, farm labor has been one of many options for making money in the summer, but the way young workers fit into the agricultural industry has seen major changes in the past several years.
Darrin Ditchen, owner of Golden Valley Farms East in Stanfield, said his minimum hiring age is 16, the age teens have to be to operate heavy equipment.
“If you can’t run equipment on a farm ... they can’t work too many hours,” Ditchen said. “At a farming job, that’s tough.”
The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries has several requirements for employing minors both under 16, and under 18. Among other restrictions, workers under the age of 16 are prohibited from working in places where power-driven machinery is used.
He said the rapid changes in technology has also altered the way farms operate.
In less than 20 years, most machinery has become automated, which limits the number of jobs teens are needed to do.
“When I was growing up, you saw more younger people working simpler jobs on a farm, like picking berries,” he said. “You don’t see that anymore. For so many kids, their first job is at 16. And they’ve never been around a farm.”
He said that lack of familiarity requires employers to spend more time training kids on how to operate and be safe around equipment.
“I’ve turned a lot of kids away this year,” he said. “The jobs are out there, but it’s a hard job.”
Still, Ditchen said, he likes hiring high school and college kids to work for him. This year, he hired eight high school students and three college students.
Trevor Horn, 17, is a Hermiston High School student in his first year working for Ditchen.
As he drove a combine harvesting Kentucky bluegrass seed, Horn said he has been asked to do every type of task on the farm since he started working a few weeks ago.
“I probably enjoy helping in the mechanical shop most,” he said. “Mostly because then I understand as much as I can.”
Operating the combine is a close second, he said, but he’s had to remind himself how big the machine is — even if it doesn’t travel faster than 2 miles per hour.
Sammy Moore, 16, is in his second summer at Golden Valley Farms.
“It’s farm labor — anything and everything,” he said, as he sorted through a box full of sprinkler heads that had been pulled out of the blueberry fields. “It’s all on-the-job training. It’s just common sense.”
For many teens, securing a seasonal job is easier if they know someone in the industry.
“It’s kind of a networking thing,” said Jack Bellinger, owner of Bellinger Farms. He said he hires anywhere from five to 10 teens per summer, and many are friends of his high school-age sons, or people they already know.
Most teens work on the sorting line, processing, weighing and dividing up melons. They will help pack them into boxes for small-market orders, and make lids and pallets.
“Some drive forklifts — not very many,” Bellinger said, noting that kids have to be a certain age to operate machinery.
Rarely are teens out in the field, Bellinger said.
“It’s definitely manual labor,” he said.
Larger companies like Atkinson Staffing hire students every summer to work in the fields starting at age 15, mostly weeding around crops in Hermiston and Boardman.
Some agricultural jobs in the area are more research-based. The Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center, operated through Oregon State University, hires a handful of high school students, as well as college and graduate students, to assist with lab work every summer.
“The principal investigator will hire students based upon need,” said center director Phil Hamm. While high schoolers don’t have to have a science background to get hired, it does help.
“It gives them the potential to learn about something they never knew about before, and potentially to do as a career,” he said.
Raegan Aldred, 17, and Benjamin Moore, 18, are both in their second year working at the experiment station, and are assisting with research in the entomology lab.
The two help collect data and read samples from the field.
Before starting work, the students have to go through safety training to learn how to be around farm equipment, and when it’s safe to go in the fields after pesticide has been applied.
Both are interested in wildlife, and have been able to apply the skills they’ve learned in some way.
“For me, it’s more been learning how scientists put data together,” Moore said. “It’s helped me out with some science classes.”
Dallas Fridley, a regional economist for the state employment department, said in the third quarter of 2017, teens ages 14 to 18 held about three percent of the jobs in Umatilla County, or about 1,047 jobs. The number of agricultural jobs for youth increased in 2017, from about 40 to about 200.
“There has been more competition for these jobs from older workers,” Fridley said in an email to the East Oregonian. “Certainly the situation was more difficult for youth following the recession — but with unemployment rates at historic lows, the job market for youth should be better now than it has been in recent years.”
He said the top employer of youth in Umatilla County is the leisure and hospitality industry, providing about 370 jobs.
Many local employers said they will start their high school students at minimum wage, but are happy to give raises if they come back the next year, or show initiative in the job.
“The labor force out there is not plump,” Bellinger said. “We’re always looking for qualified people.”