Employees place apples in trays at a Domex Superfresh Growers facility near Yakima, Wash.
Employees place apples in trays at a Domex Superfresh Growers facility near Yakima, Wash.

YAKIMA, Wash. — Grower-shippers expect to have enough workers to harvest the new apple crop, even as they continue to count labor as a concern.

Most are heavily reliant on the H-2A guest worker program, the use of which has increased significantly in the last decade, from 814 workers in 2006 to 13,697 in 2016, according to the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

“That’s a pretty significant growth curve in that program,” said Jon DeVaney, president of the association.

“If we did not have those (13,000), almost 14,000 jobs last year filled through H-2A, those were all jobs that were documented as not being able to be filled with the domestic workforce, so that would have been the size of the labor shortage.”

Bill Knight, domestic sales manager for Wenatchee-based Northern Fruit Co., said the company would like to have some local labor but has not found many people with the aptitude or desire to do the job.

“Most of our orchard work is hourly, but with the piece rate for incentives in there for these guys, some of these guys can do really well,” Knight said. “But it’s hard work, and I think those that have tried it for a while find out that maybe it’s not something they want to do, (so) right now we’re still dependent upon a lot of the H-2A (workers).”

Using the program requires a major investment. Companies pay for housing complexes and transportation of workers to and from the U.S. and transportation back and forth to the orchards and to other places — like the grocery store — on a regular basis.

“It’s an expensive endeavor, but it’s an essential one,” said Randy Abhold, executive vice president of sales and business development for Selah-based Rainier Fruit.

“If we didn’t actually have that access, we would struggle bringing product in, we wouldn’t be successful as a company, and I know that we’re not the only ones who are in that category. It’s become a very large necessity for many companies like ours in our industry.

“Getting the product off the trees when it needs to come off the trees, at its peak flavor profile and storage capabilities, is everything for our success,” Abhold said. “We just have to get that part right or the rest of it doesn’t matter.”

Companies did not express much optimism about Congress providing a more user-friendly guest worker program any time soon, but for the most part H-2A has allowed grower-shippers to steadily get their fruit off the trees and packed for shipments.

DeVaney sees a potential hurdle down the road, however — the capacity of agencies to handle more applications on quick turnarounds.

“In the last few years we had already experienced delays where the Department of Labor would have questions and couldn’t get applications processed in time, where there were holdups at the border with visa processing in consulates,” DeVaney said.

“So if you’re very dependent on that pathway for your labor supply and it’s highly regulated in there, then (in the case of) bureaucratic delays, it means that you’re not getting the labor in time for perishable crops that need to be tended or picked at very specific time frames.”