National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

Last 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.

Expanded use of H-2A labor, a longer picking season and more efficient planning of labor needs may be reasons to be optimistic that the big apple crop can be harvested in good shape, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers LLC, Wenatchee, Wash.

The lateness of last year’s season made for a shorter harvest window. This year, Pepperl said this year’s crop may be as much as 14 days ahead of last year’s pace. The longer picking season should result in a less compressed picking schedule, leaving growers time to handle each variety.

And while growers want immigration reform that would allow existing migrant workers to have legal status and provide a less expensive guest worker program, he said the use of the H-2A program will increase.

“The reality is that we’re putting some H-2A into our programs and I know we are not alone,” said Pepperl. While the paperwork and expense of H2A make the program difficult to use, a substantial number of growers have signed up for H-2A workers, he said. That will relieve some pressure at harvest time, he said.

Mike Gempler, executive rector of the Washington Growers League, Yakima, said there will be a slight increase in the use of the H-2A guest worker program in the state, with a few more growers trying the program and others expanding the number of workers. Last year, about 3,100 H-2A workers were used by fruit growers in the state. Out of that number, about 2,700 were used by three employers, he said.

Growers don’t know if they will face a labor crisis this fall, Gempler said. “We won’t know until it is over, but there is going to be a lot of pressure on the labor pool.”

Newhouse warned that many of the factors relating to movement of immigrants from Mexico and between states are still in place.

For Newhouse and others in Washington, the wolf that visited in 2011 and is likely to make an appearance this year points to the necessity of getting an immigration system that works.

The bite marks from last year show that is not just growers crying wolf.