Related content: Western Growers report underscores lack of labor.

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.

“Some guys are worse situations if they have huge ranches of fujis. They could probably use hundreds of pickers,” Steensma said.

The causes behind the labor shortage are multiple, industry sources said. Part of it was the fact of a later-starting apple harvest, Steensma said.

While some growers assumed the season would catch up with normal timing, that never happened. “We stayed two weeks late through the whole deal,” Grim said.

“Normally we start the first or second week of August, but we really didn’t get going until Labor Day,” Steensma said. Growers may have come early but then decided to find work in California or some place else, he said.

In addition, undocumented workers may not be traveling to find work as they used to, Steensma speculated.

Grim said the industry has not seen the number of pickers it normally experiences. “It doesn’t matter if you are talking about a larger grower or a small growers, they are all mentioning the fact that there are not enough people around,” Grim said.

Grim said some have speculated that increased talk about immigration enforcement has kept workers away from available jobs.

Growers have had little luck using the state’s employment service called WorkSource. One organization Grim talked to said the company recently received 186 referrals through the WorkSource office. Of those 117 called for an interviews, of which 94 were hired. Only 17 showed up to work, Grim said and only five are still working at the farm.

Market impact

Grim said the harvest weather has been good through September, October and early November for harvesting fruit with good internal condition.

However, the biggest effect from the shortage of workers may be evident in fruit quality later in the storage season, Steensma said.

“There was a period of time where we were four to five days behind what we would like to be, and so that puts a little behind the curve of where we wanted to pick and pack and store,” he said.

While the fruit will be picked, he said that fruit originally expected to be marketed in May could be marketed out of controlled atmosphere storage in January.

“I think the galas and goldens are in good shape, but we started getting behind in the late anjou harvest (and) red delicious and it started compounding,” he said.

He said some growers might walk away from some lower-value late season varieties — notably braeburn — in deference to higher value late season varieties such as fuji, Pacific Rose and Pink Ladies.

Steensma said apple market conditions were good in early November, but he said it was possible that prices for regular storage fruit could come under pressure if growers are forced to put more fruit in short-term storage than usual.

Future

With the current crisis signalling even deeper troubles ahead, Steensma said the industry will have to “go back to the drawing board” on finding enough labor in future years. “Our state government has a vested interest in us, but the national government, they don’t really care.”Grim said Washington growers of every size are concerned about the future of labor availability.

“We have been asking for, crying for, praying for a fix to carry of the fact that these are seasonal jobs that the majority of people in this country do not want,” Grim said. “We would like to find a guest worker system that would allow us to bring those workers into the country to take these jobs and then go back home,” he said. The alternative, he said, is that orchards will go out of business, he said. “We need to this fix and it isn’t going to get fix unless you want to crater this industry for reasons of lack of workers to get it picked, packed and processed.

If legal farm workers aren’t found, the Washington tree fruit industry could be in trouble, said Dan Fazio, owner of the Washington Farm Labor Association, Lacey, Wash. “I’m on the record predicting that 50% of the smaller orchards will be torn out in the next ten years,” he said.

Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Agricultural employers, said the troubles in Washington state aren’t unique.

with low unemployment in Mexico and slowing migration, all of U.S. agriculture will be challenged to find workers in the next five to ten years, he said. “In the end, we have to find a way to convince Congress to make the workers doing the work now legal, or we are in serious trouble.”