Apple industry fights to keep wolf at bay - The Packer

Apple industry fights to keep wolf at bay

05/25/2012 10:48:00 AM
Tom Karst

National Editor Tom KarstLast year was when the “wolf” came right up to the front porch of the Washington apple grower and nosed his way in the door.

No fooling. This was no ritual complaint about the short labor supply, no mere whining by growers about failed U.S. immigration policies.

A late apple harvest last fall caused Northwest U.S. fruit growers to scramble to find workers and some fruit going unpicked. Now some industry sources wonder if there will be enough pickers to harvest a crop of near 120 million carton of apples, more than 10 million cartons more than any previous year.

In point of fact, the fall of 2011 saw the first real shortage of labor in several years for Washington growers, said John Wines, economic analyst for the Washington State Employment Security Department, Wines told me the agency won’t speculate about the labor forecast this year.

The department has been tracking labor shortages since 2007. In 2007, the annual average labor shortage was 3.5%, dropping to 1.7% in 2008, 0.7% in 2009 and zero in 2010.

Last year, however, a monthly survey showed Washington state farm labor was 4.8% short of needs in August, peaking at 8.6% in September and 6.7% short in October and 1% short in November. Though wage rates adjusted for inflation have been relatively stable for two decades, the average bin rate growers paid for picking fruit was up 15.9% in November 2011 over November 2010.

The apple industry left an estimated 3% of the 2011 crop unharvested, translating to $40 to $60 million worth of lost revenue, said Dan Newhouse, director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Fast forward to May 2012, when growers are feeling pretty positive about the sales prospects for a record apple crop this fall. With the usual disclaimer that no one likes to benefit from someone else’s misfortune, Washington shippers do like their chances to move their 2012 crop after late April cold knocked down apple potential in Ontario, Michigan and New York.

While it is unclear just how much damage was inflicted by the frost, it no doubt will play into Washington’s hand this upcoming season.

Yet the question remains; there will be apples on the trees, but will there be hands to pick them?

Newhouse said their are anecdotal stories of some asparagus growers leaving field idle because of lack of labor.

“I think we have every reason to be concerned about labor,” said Keith Mathews, chief executive officer of FirstFruits Marketing of Washington, Yakima. The expected record or near record cherry crop will test the labor supply first, he said. Cherry harvest in Washington will begin about June 5, and apple harvest begins about Aug. 15.

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