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Wash. tree fruit labor outlook tight

Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Much of Washington's seasonal agricultural employment occurs in the tree fruit industry and it may be extra short this year, early numbers show.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — Seasonal agricultural labor has been tight in Washington for a number of years, but an earlier indicator shows this year might be worse.

A monthly tracking of seasonal agricultural employment by the state Employment Security Department shows it 5.2 percent short in March, the highest level for that month in eight years of a survey.

A lot of tree planting, installation of new trellis and blossom thinning is eating up labor right now, said Andy Gale, general manager of Stemilt AgServices in Wenatchee.

“Honeycrisp is so high-priced and such alternate bearing that it pays off to get in and pick off blossoms by hand to ensure return bloom next year,” Gale said.

There are help wanted signs at orchards near George and Royal City, he said. But a light California cherry crop coupled with an expected large Washington crop may cause more California workers to come to Washington, he said.

The labor shortage percentage normally is very low in winter months and runs about 8 percent in summer during pre-harvest and harvest, said John Wines, a department economic analyst in Olympia. It was 5.9 percent in February probably because a mild winter accelerated orchard pruning creating more demand for workers that month, Wines said.

But the percentages for February and March could mean a greater shortage this summer, he said.

A year ago, there was a 2.4 percent shortage in February and 0 percent in March, he said.

Peaks were 8.8 percent in June 2013 and September 2012, corresponding with cherry and apple-pear harvests, respectively, he said.

Another way to look at the survey is that the labor supply is 95 percent sufficient, Wines said. A real shortage would cause piece rates paid workers to rise, he said. That happened a couple of years ago, but there’s no big jump now, he said.

There are about 6,000 agricultural employers in the state, Wines said. Every month he sends a questionnaire to about 2,000 and get about 700 back. He asks if they failed to complete some work due to lack of seasonal labor and how many more employees they could have used. The questionnaire is sent to 250 large employers, mostly the same ones every year and a random selection of 1,750 smaller ones that varies more year-to-year, he said.

There were 10,750 seasonal apple workers in March, up 1,730 from 9,020 last year, Wines said. There were 2,790 seasonal hops workers, up 1,380 from 1,410 in March of 2013, he said. Hops are very cyclical, he said. The number of apple workers increases while shortages remain because of increased acreage and need for more workers, Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee, has said.

It’s hard to know how severe any shortage may be this year, but there likely will be some shortage because there’s been some for a number of years, Mayer said. “Hopefully, it’s a manageable amount and it’s can be highly dependent on the weather,” he said.

Minor spot shortages already are occurring in the southern part of Central Washington in the far north, upper Okanogan County, he said. Cherry and apple crops look to be average or above average in volume, he said.

There are usually 12,000 to 13,000 seasonal tree fruit orchard workers this time of year and it increases to 47,000 during cherry harvest in June and July and returns to that level during apple and pear harvest in September and October, he said. Employment Security Department numbers show a 2012 peak of 69,000 in July, he said.

A dramatic increase in the use of H-2A visa foreign guestworkers is continuing, Mayer said. As of April 11, 5,541 H-2A workers had been requested for this year, up from 4,474 on May 31 a year ago, he said.

Stemilt AgServices, which manages 8,000 acres of orchards for Stemilt Growers Inc., used 375 H-2A workers last year and may reach 450 this season, Gale said.

“We will share a contract with a row cropper and he will use 300 in August to detassel corn when we don’t need as many,” he said.



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