The most important issue Northwest pear growers face isn’t the export market or competition with other fruits during the fall season or even a lack of consumer knowledge about their product.
Those are problems everyone has to face, growers say, but they also say the most daunting hurdle they go up against each year is labor.
“The one issue that we’re running into is will we have enough labor to pick it?” said Dan Kelly, assistant manager with the Wenatchee-based Washington Growers Clearing House, which collects data for about 2,000 grower-members across the state.
The labor pinch is especially harsh in big crop years, such as last year’s record take of 20.6 million boxes in Washington, Kelly said.
This year, another big crop — 19.3 million cartons — is anticipated, and many in the industry are nervous about the labor situation.
Some of the concern has been blunted by a large cherry harvest during the summer, which often provides an indication of how many workers will be available to pick pears, Kelly said.
“I do have to say, though, that with the cherry deal, which looks like a record crop, labor hasn’t been a huge problem,” he said.
He added, though, that cherry harvests offer better pay than do those of other crops, including pears.
Settling the immigration issue in favor of a guest worker program would ease some, if not most, of the growers’ consternation, although that’s certain not to happen in a presidential election year, Kelly said.
“It’s a tough issue because there’s a lot of emotion involved in it,” he said.
“The labor issue is bigger and farmworker housing has been an issue the last few years,” he said.
There likely will be ample labor this season, said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Yakima-based Washington Growers League.
“I think the big labor crunch will come around Oct. 1, when apples are peaking, so my hope and guess at this time is that we’ll have sufficient labor for the pear harvest,” Gempler said.
He estimates Washington will have a field-labor pool of 5,000 to 6,000, which would be in the typical range.
“Pears are fairly stable, so I think it will be comparable this year,” he said.
Pears also have a timing advantage on the labor front, Gempler said.
“It’s during a lull before the apple harvest, so rarely do we have a problem in Washington with pear harvest,” Gempler said.
Kelly said a long-term goal of the industry is a move toward mechanical harvesting of apples, cherries and pears.
“If that comes through, every little grower isn’t going to be able to afford to buy into that kind of stuff, but the big guys will be able to, and that will relieve a lot of workers,” he said.
It may take many years to make the technology practical, Kelly said.
“They’ve got some prototypes right now, but how long that will take to get it to a commercial venture, it’s probably in the five- to 10-year range,” he said.
Gempler said he’s not holding out much hope that mechanical harvesting ever will become a workable proposition, at least on a wide scale.