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Washington pear growers short of pickers

Dan Wheat
Pear harvest is done in the lower Wenatchee Valley, but growers scramble in the upper valley for enough pickers to finish.

PESHASTIN, Wash. — Seven deer cautiously crossed a road from one part of Dennis Nicholson’s pear orchard to another.

It’s too bad, Nicholson, agreed that they couldn’t pick for him. Like his neighbors, Nicholson is short pickers. Deer don’t help. They don’t eat the fruit but they do eat terminal buds off young apple trees, killing them if they get too many.

“I’ve put out deer repellent but it’s only about 50-percent effective,” Nicholson said.

But on his eighth day of harvest, Sept. 20, Nicholson was more concerned about enough pickers than deer.

Eight pickers arrived in the morning. Three others didn’t.

Noting the steepness of the portion of his orchard being picked, Nicholson said they probably found an easier, flatter orchard elsewhere or apples, which are lighter and easier to pick.

He said he needed 15 pickers a day to finish the harvest of his 35 acres of d ‘Anjou pears within the next 10 days.

“This is typical of the last few years,” he said. “We haven’t had people stop in and ask for work for a long time. Most of my guys are regulars, here all year long.”

One of them, Guillermo Hollos, 71, is the oldest picker that Nicholson knows of.

“He’s older than I am and he works harder than I do,” said Nicholson, 66.

Hollos moved and picked quickly. Using Nicholson to translate his Spanish, he said he has no plans to quit.

When he says “vamonos,” I’ll be gone, he said with a big grin. He said he’s picked for 46 years, 20 for Nicholson, and raised nine children in an orchard cabin.

Across Highway 97 from the Nicholson Orchard, Dick Smithson leveled tops of bins full of pears, preparing them for trucking to a packing shed. He said he had 16 pickers but could use a few more with more than half his 60 acres to go.

“The last few years has been a struggle with all this immigration stuff going on,” Smithson said. “In our nation, agriculture is a tiny spot on the map. Legislators don’t seem to care too much about apples and pears being picked.”

Another neighbor, Jeff Folden, was five days late starting harvest because he had no pickers. He placed a picker wanted sign, in Spanish, at the highway. He got two pickers and started. The next day, Sept. 20, he got three more and was hoping for five more the next.

Folden admitted the three might have come from Nicholson’s, but noted he was paying more than he wanted to at $23 per bin with a $2 per bin bonus if workers stayed with him through harvest.

He said he use to pay $18 to $20 per bin but has had to pay $22 to $23 the last several years. Large companies, that provide housing, still get by with $17 to $19, he said.

Fewer pickers are coming from California because they don’t want to risk getting caught by immigration authorities, Folden said.

“They get deported and their families remain,” he said. “It’s a sad deal. I don’t know why we can’t do temporary worker visas.”

Pickers are really scarce, he said, north of Brewster in Okanogan County. It doesn’t help, he said, that immigration authorities do sweeps before harvest.

“Two days ago I was moping around,” Folden said. “Now, I think I may make it and get to go hunting.”



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