Halfway through Washington’s cherry harvest, the labor supply seems adequate, growers say.
But there’s concern about early September, when harvest workers are needed for apples, pears, grapes and hops — all at the same time.
In California, Daniel Sumner, director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center at UC-Davis, says he thinks the labor shortage is worse than it was the last several years.
“We have been hearing from growers in several locations around the state that labor is harder to find and wages are higher,” Sumner said.
Growers and packers of labor-intensive crops throughout the West have been worried about having enough seasonal workers because fewer people are illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and a heightened fear of deportation by U.S. immigration authorities.
“There are no more migrant seasonal workers. All of them are local, domestic people who prefer full-time jobs and are getting them in agriculture and construction,” said Dan Fazio, director of WAFLA in Olympia, formerly known as the Washington Farm Labor Association.
Seasonal harvest need peaks at about 100,000 workers in early September in Washington and there appears to be around 50,000 local, domestic workers willing to do seasonal work, he said. About 15,000 workers will come via the H-2A visa foreign guestworker program, mostly operated in Washington by WAFLA.
“So we will be short big time during peak harvest and I’m hearing it won’t be uncommon for growers to ask domestic workers to work seven days per week. They can’t with H-2A, but they can ask domestic workers,” Fazio said.
The H-2A program is expensive, requiring growers to provide housing and pay workers’ transportation between the orchard and their country of origin.
Processing of H-2A visas by federal agencies sped up this year under the Trump administration, which has been a big help, Fazio said.
Reggie Collins, general manager of Chelan Fruit Cooperative in Chelan, Wash., said he was short 400 job applicants for packing cherries, three weeks before start of cherry harvest in June. He advertised in other states and got all the help he needed. He also paid higher wages, $12 per hour for day shift and $13.38, the minimum wage for H-2A workers, for night shifts, plus overtime.
There’s more of a shortage in orchard pickers but not to the point that crops aren’t getting picked, said Tom Riggan, general manager of Chelan Fresh Marketing.
B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission and Northwest Cherry Growers, said he hasn’t heard of any labor issues.
“There will never be enough (pickers), but I haven’t heard of a single grower who couldn’t get picked,” Thurlby said.
Doug Drescher, a small-scale cherry grower in Orondo, Wash., said picker turnover is heavy in his Rainier cherries. Pickers would rather pick red cherries because they are faster since they don’t have to sort out culls or separate stems, he said.
He’s had enough workers, he said, because he’s one of the later orchards in the area due to mountain shade. Some 12 to 15 pickers per day were stopping at his place looking for work the first week of July but by the second week they had moved north, he said.
Drescher pays piece rate but said a neighboring grower with H-2A workers experienced slower production because he was paying the $13.38 per hour H-2A minimum instead of a higher piece rate.
Not all growers have experienced reduced productivity when shifting from piece rate to hourly and no surveys have assessed it, Fazio said.
“We’re seeing more H-2A workers used in cherries this year than last and the year before there were none,” Fazio said, noting that’s an indicator of a shortage.
He knows of one grower, he said, who uses domestic workers on piece rate for red cherries and H-2A workers on hourly rate for Rainier because they bruise easier and he wants slower picking for quality.
Many Washington tree fruit companies have turned increasingly to H-2A in recent years to meet their labor needs. Zirkle Fruit Co., Yakima, employs about 3,000 H-2A workers annually and Gebbers Farms, Brewster, hires 2,000.
Broetje Orchards, in Prescott, Auvil Fruit, in Orondo, and Orchard View Farms, The Dalles, Ore., say they still make it solely with domestic workers by paying well but may have to turn to H-2A in coming years.
Broetje is the largest of those three with more than 5,000 acres in the Tri-Cities. Broetje employs about 2,200 workers for picking and packing cherries and about 4,000 during apple harvest, according to Chuck Zeutenhorst, general manager of First Fruits Marketing of Washington, in Yakima, Broetje’s marketing arm.
“So far we’re getting along OK, but I’ve heard inklings of guys struggling on labor,” Zeutenhorst said.
“The real deal is apples. We’re still very, very concerned about that because hops have gotten bigger and others competing for workers. I don’t think there’s enough labor to harvest the apple crop, industry wide and including our company,” he said.
He has said someday the company may turn to H-2A.
Auvil Fruit hires about 220 workers for cherries and 600 to 700 in apples.
“We just finished cherries and we had plenty of labor, but as we get bigger it could be a shortage,” said John Baile, Auvil’s assistant orchard manager.
For the moment, the company believes it can get enough apple pickers but is investigating H-2A for possibly 2018 or 2019, Baile said.
Auvil does a lot of color picking, multiple passes through its orchards to pick fruit at the right maturity for optimum quality. Some pickers don’t like that so turnover can be heavy, he said.
Orchard View Farms is the largest cherry grower in Oregon with about 2,400 acres. It pays well with piece rates averaging $20 per hour.
“We’ve been fine. Pickers are picking a lot of fruit and doing well. The packing house has a lot of good hours,” said Brenda Thomas, president.
The company is not experiencing a shortage this year but there are no extra people looking for work, she has said.
“Labor is tight but we’re getting by,” said Kevin Corliss, vice president of viticulture at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Prosser, the state’s largest winery.
Mike Williamson, tree fruit and grape grower in Caldwell, Idaho, said labor is fairly tight and demand is up due to increases in hops, grape vine retraining and a strong pull in construction.
He’s cautiously optimistic he’ll have the 30 seasonal workers he needs at peak in late August and early September and hopes his crew of 15 for vine retraining now stays on through then.