It's a picker push for Washington apples
By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Some Washington state apples may not get picked because there's not enough pickers for a large, late crop.
No one knows how many apples that might be or potential losses to growers, said Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.
Labor is tight in just about all production areas and about 40 percent of the crop remains to be picked in some larger orchard blocks, Mayer said. He does not know, he said, how much of the total estimated 106.3-million-box crop remains on trees.
"Everyone's nervous and working as fast as they can," he said.
The picker shortage has been blamed on the compressed harvest window and tighter border enforcement against illegal immigrants.
"If a grower is 10 to 20 percent short on his crew that means he's 10 to 20 percent short on fruit harvested on that day," Mayer said.
Picking usually winds down at the end of October with some late varieties finishing in the first and second weeks of November. But if good weather holds probably a record amount of fruit will be picked later, into mid-November, Mayer said.
"If we can't pick after Nov. 5 (because of bad weather or freezes) some Reds, Grannies, Fuji, Braeburn and Cripps Pink will be left on trees," he said.
"Picker wanted" signs, more in Spanish than English, are visible at orchard entrances.
Crews are being moved to where they are needed and outlying areas are struggling more, said Tim Welsh, horticulturist and varieties manager of Columbia Fruit Packers Inc., Wenatchee. Mild weather and no frost is forecast for the next 15 days, he said on Oct. 18. "If that holds, we will be successful in getting our (Columbia's) crop off," he said.
The Yakima WorkSource office of the state Department of Employment Security had nine job orders from growers for a total of 274 apple pickers wanted on Oct. 18, said Ignacio Marquez, office director. The Sunnyside office had four orders for apple 41 pickers and the White Salmon office had eight orders for 52 pear pickers, he said.
Wenatchee WorkSource had five orders for a total of five pickers, down from prior weeks, said Marcia Henkle, director.
While Growers Clearing House encourages growers to place orders with WorkSource many find it faster and more fruitful to scout neighboring orchards.
"We don't see a lot of experienced pickers going to WorkSource but having WorkSource in orchards has been a fairly successful program," Mayer said.
As of Oct. 18, there were 33 job orders for a total of 265 apple pickers wanted in Quincy, George, Othello, Royal City and Mattawa, said Bill Tarrow, deputy communications director of Employment Security in Olympia.
"Several potato growers are wrapping up which should free up 250 or so by Thursday or Friday," he said.
The shortage may not be quite as bad as in 2005, but the economy was better then and construction was good, Tarrow noted. Construction typically draws workers away from agriculture.
Okanogan WorkSource reported nine orders for 90 pickers which was more than last year and mainly among smaller, not large, growers, said Craig Carroll, office business liaison. He said two or three pear growers gave up on pears and moved into apples.
Employment Security reports show 12,084 seasonal workers employed in apple orchards in November 2009, Mayer said.
"Last year, harvest was a week later than normal and the number was 14,693, which was probably a record. This year we're two to three weeks later than normal and will probably set a new record," he said.