Eastern apple growers fret about labor shortage - The Packer

Eastern apple growers fret about labor shortage

08/21/2014 02:07:00 PM
Jim Offner

Fear of a lack of field workers for apple orchards in the eastern U.S. are an annual event, according to some grower-shippers in the region, and those fears persist this year.

However, events along the U.S.-Mexico border don’t seem to be exacerbating their apprehension this year.

“Harvesting apples is not an automated process, which means preserving the labor force is critical to the long-term success of the industry,” said Julie Bancroft, executive director of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Apple Marketing Program.

Jim Allen, president, Fishers-based New York Apple Association, said there would be enough workers, although he also said the situation along the border was cause for concern.

“First of all, as a humanitarian issue, what’s going on at the border is absolutely terrible, just a tragedy,” he said.

Calls for immigration reform have been sounded across the produce industry for years, and the current border crisis might push those efforts back, Allen said.

“It certainly is not going to help the U.S. government to get off their you-know-what and solve the immigration issue that faces the ag industry,” he said.

In fact, the events along the Rio Grande will only serve to polarize the population over the immigration issue, and Congress certainly won’t address reform in an election year, Allen said.

“So, once again, the personal objectives of Congress take over their responsibilities of running the country, and we’re looking nationally at having one of the largest apple crops we’ve had in years,” Allen said.

That leaves a big question mark hanging over the apple harvest, Allen said.

“One of the bigger concerns, the biggest risk out there is will we be able to harvest the crop,” he said.

The political component of the issue is perhaps its most nettlesome, said Jeff Crist, president of Walden, N.Y.-based Crist Bros. Orchards Inc.

“I think the first part of the question is the same old story, where our people in Washington, D.C., are having just a next-to-impossible time to come to consensus and resolve the immigration issue and supply us with a reliable workforce through a somewhat friendly guestworker program,” Crist said.

The border-security issue certainly is a legitimate concern, Crist said.

“In fairness, it should be addressed on a more comprehensive basis,” he said.

For the moment, Allen said, the labor situation in New York was stable, although he added that nothing would be certain until the harvest started to hit its peak.

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