Before summer hailstorms dinged Washington’s apple crop, some in the industry projected a bumper crop. Now, the state is expected to have a crop that just approaches the record of 109.2 million boxes set in 2010-11.

“If it was going to be more than 120 million, there would have been a big question of, can we get it all off the trees,” said Rebecca Lyons, export marketing director for the Washington Apple Commission.

Washington’s official crop estimate currently is 108.7 million boxes, which has some growers asking whether the still sizable crop could pose labor challenges.

“That’s the $50 million question weighing on everyone’s mind,” said Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing for Rainier Fruit Co., Yakima, Wash.

“Labor continues to be industry’s No. 1 concern. We’re utilizing the government’s guest-worker program to assist us during harvest and, along with the local workforce, believe we will be able to get our crop harvested,” she said.

Marketing and communications manager Loren Queen said Yakima-based Domex Superfresh Growers already had issues this year finding enough workers to pick cherries and prune and to thin apples.

“Labor will always be an issue on the harvest side,” he said. “We have been able to mitigate some of those issues on the packing side by running year-round.”

Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing of Sage Fruit Co., Yakima, said labor has been a big issue in Washington for several months.

“Having ample harvest crews is very important to ensure the highest-quality product,” he said. “Not enough labor can create a variety of problems. For example, on varieties where you would usually want to make three or four passes through the orchard to get things picked, you may only have the manpower to make one or two passes.”

Brianna Shales, communications director for Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers LLC, said growers will have to add labor to effectively weed through storm-affected fruit.

“Basically, it takes longer for pickers to sort for quality in the field when you have fruit that needs to be harvested so selectively,” she said. “It will be one of the most expensive crops to harvest between agricultural labor shortages and the storm-affected fruit. It will be very challenging to harvest. Labor is short and is more expensive than any point in history."