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A late apple harvest and a shortage of apple pickers has added short-term stress to the final weeks of the Washington apple harvest and added to long-term worries about labor availability for Northwest tree fruit growers.
One grower in Washington state reportedly has employed a limited number of low security inmates to help with the harvest crunch. The Seattle Times reported that 105 inmates from the Olympic Corrections Center in Clallam County started picking apples at a wage of better than $20 per hour the week of Oct. 31 at an orchard owned by Quincy-based McDougall and Sons. A company representative did not return a call for comment on the report.
Fujis, Pink Ladies and braeburn apples account for most of what fruit remains to be picked of the estimated 105-million-carton fresh apple crop in Washington, said Randy Steensma, president and export marketing director of Nuchief Sales Inc., Wenatchee. Steensma said Nov. 3 that growers were open to anyone who is willing to work as they struggled to put fruit under cover with the approach of cold weather. Harvest is expected to be wrapped up by mid-November.
Bruce Grim, executive director of the Washington State Horticulture Association, Wenatchee, estimated about 10% to 15% of the crop remained to be picked as of early November.
“It will be a push to the end,” said Grim. “I don’t think we had a year previous to this with such a short number of pickers.”
Grim said unofficial estimates of apple pickers typically used in the state at close to 50,000, give or take 10,000 workers. There are only about 3,000 H-2A guest workers used by apple growers, and he said many of those workers have started to return home.
To find pickers, some growers have offered to transport workers from Wenatchee to ranches in Chelan or Brewster. Signs near some orchards promise pickers $150 a day.
“Growers have been proactive with transportation and letting them know there is work up here,” Steensma said.
At the height of the shortage, more than 1,000 agricultural job openings were posted on the WorkSource system, said Rick Van Cise, communications manager for the Olympia, Wash.-based service.
Jon Warling, who runs Marjon Labor, an Othello, Wash.-based company that supplies farm labor to growers said growers are paying 10% to 15% higher wages this year compared with a year ago.
In general, growers would have like to have 15% more workers on harvest crews than what they have been able to secure, Steensma said.