A strong state workforce helps keep our agriculture economy moving

Agriculture inspector job can take years of training, is in midst of retirement wave

After Washington state produce makes its way from the field and down a packing warehouse conveyor belt, a meeting with agriculture inspector Tabitha Hernandez could be next.

Agriculture inspector Tabitha Hernandez works with a bag of potatoes in April at a produce packing warehouse. (Photo courtesy of Tabitha Hernandez)

The Quincy-based agriculture inspector spends her days inspecting apples, pears, cherries, potatoes, onions — pretty much every food crop grown in the state — to make sure the produce meets federal and state quality standards. Along with nearly 200 other agricultural inspectors across Washington, she looks for things that can affect quality, such as pests, disease, defects and even size and color.

Hernandez has worked as a state inspector for about a decade, but said she still feels relatively new working alongside her coworkers, many of whom have 20 to 30 years of experience.

“It takes years of training to become a proficient and competent inspector,” she said. “The services we provide are so diverse and always changing throughout the year because agriculture is ever changing. Whether it be our standards, condition of the produce or export requirements, we are always adapting.”

State inspectors go through extensive training and are licensed through the United States Department of Agriculture, which also audits their work. Once the state Department of Agriculture takes the time to train and license its workers, it wants to keep them.

The department says that providing a good salary for its agriculture inspectors is key to retaining them. Processing produce quickly is vital to the multi-billion-dollar agricultural industry in Washington, the nation’s third-largest exporter of food and agriculture products.

During the collective bargaining process for the 2017–19 budget, the state Office of Financial Management negotiated a modest general wage increase for most Washington state employees, including agriculture inspectors. The increases would be phased in so that workers would receive a pay bump of 2 percent this July, 2 percent next July and 2 percent in January of 2019.

Those increases still require the approval of the state Legislature, which is working toward a compromise on the 2017–19 budget.

State workers received no general wage increases from 2008 to 2015 — the longest stretch without increases since at least 1962, according to OFM. They received a general wage increase in 2015 and last year, but their wages still lag behind inflation, and health care and retirement costs are taking a larger chunk of their pay, according to OFM.

In the midst of a wave of inspector retirements, the Department of Agriculture has had some success with recruiting replacements. The agency has held job fairs to attract applicants, and inspection positions were reclassified in 2011, resulting in a salary bump.

Recruiting more inspectors will continue to be a challenge, however, because the program anticipates that wave of retirements to continue for the next five to seven years.

“The program has a robust training module for each commodity that’s inspected,” said Jason Ferrante, assistant director of the department’s Commodity Inspection Division. For example, he added, “in some cases it can take an inspector five years to obtain a USDA Accredited Certifying Official license, the license required to certify phytosanitary inspections.”

‘Working toward a common goal’

Hernandez, 31, said she loves the variety of work her job entails — going into the fields and packing plants, and interacting with farmers and workers. Next month, she’ll start driving to Wenatchee every morning to oversee other inspectors during cherry season. It will be her seventh cherry season.

She takes a lot of pride in the work she and her coworkers do, she said.

Much of produce she and other inspectors look over will head on an international journey, perhaps to China, Mexico or Indonesia.

“It’s very important for the export market and for the domestic market,” Hernandez said. “We want people to consume a good product. It has to meet a standard. It has to be good quality to be out there on the market.”

Hernandez is trained to identify produce that doesn’t pass muster, but said she also aims to help farmers succeed and keep the industry moving at a successful pace. Part of her job is to work with packers, ensuring that they are aware of all of the applicable produce standards, national and international.

Another part of her job is to provide USDA Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices audits. These third-party audits verify that local farmers and packers are following their own food safety programs.

“We’re all working toward a common goal,” Hernandez said. “We’re working with the farmer and packers to ensure the product meets standards before it is out on the market.”