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Tight labor picture worries apple growers

Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Some Washington apple growers say they don't have enough pickers. Others say they have enough. Usage of foreign guest workers has increased.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — With more than a month of harvest behind them and the peak month ahead of them, some Washington apple growers are worried about having enough pickers to get all their fruit picked. Others say they have enough.

“Labor is very, very tight, probably the worst I’ve seen in the last number of years,” said Harold Schell, director of field services at Chelan Fruit Cooperative.

Some of the cooperative’s grower members have “help wanted” signs out and are prioritizing picking to try to avoid letting fruit get over mature, Schell said.

“Our biggest concern is having enough labor to get all apple and pear varieties picked,” he said. “This is worse than last year and getting progressively worse.”

But Howard Nager, vice president of marketing for Domex Superfresh Growers in Yakima, said the company’s orchard and packing affiliate, Kershaw Fruit & Cold Storage, and other growers Domex markets for, are not experiencing picker shortages. And the crop is even picking long, he said, meaning volume is greater than estimated.

Scott McDougall, co-president of McDougall & Sons in Wenatchee, said the company’s labor supply has been sufficient with its increased use of H-2A visa foreign guest workers. Perhaps a greater concern, he said, is that prolonged hot weather has prevented good apple coloring. He was hopeful that would improve as temperatures cooled on Sept. 17.

Any shortage would be worse without this year’s big increase in H-2A guest workers, said Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, in Olympia.

So far this year, 6,194 H-2A guest workers have been certified for the state, Fazio said. That compares with 4,546 in 2012 and 3,182 in 2011.

Despite the cost and intricacies of the program, growers are turning to it for a stable labor supply and usage likely will double every two to three years for the foreseeable future, Fazio said.

“Even with H-2A, we could use more people,” said Mark Zirkle, president of Zirkle Fruit Co. and its marketing arm, Rainier Fruit, in Selah. Zirkle Fruit has about 1,000 H-2A workers. Labor is tight and because of it the industry is a bit behind in harvest, he said.

Growers are doing more multiple picks for best maturity and that complicates field decisions and causes harvest to take longer, he said. Color development has been slow, he said.

During a conference call hosted by the Washington State Department of Agriculture in early September to assess the labor situation, there was wide agreement among grower advocates and government regulators that dramatic growth in the H-2A program has benefited growers and workers, Fazio said.

“When one grower uses H-2A, it frees up domestic workers to work at non-H-2A farms so it’s a win-win,” Fazio said.

WAFLA handles the applications for more than 80 percent of the employers using the program in the state.

Some growers are not so sure of the benefits because the H-2A Adverse Effect Wage Rate has risen to $12 per hour and has pressured wages upward, he said.

“That’s not our fault. Blame it on the feds,” he said. “And how much would growers need to raise wages if they didn’t have H-2A workers?”

Kirk Mayer, manager of Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee, said labor is tight, but fruit quality and size have been excellent.

Fruit is a little larger than a year ago, which helps with marketing, he said.

Movement is strong with 2.08 million boxes of 2013 and 2012 crop apples shipped the week ending Sept. 14 compared with 1.99 million for the same week a year ago, he said.

Prices are strong at $69.90 per box for Honeycrisp season-to-date through Sept. 14 compared with $66.55 a year ago and $58.82 two years ago, said Dan Kelly, Clearing House assistant manager. Gala is $27.51 versus $31.20 a year ago and $27.67 two years ago, he said.



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