Washington's first apples picking long; labor tight
By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Washington's large apple crop is picking out even larger than expected, but there may not be enough workers to get it all harvested.
The Gala apple crop is up 20.5 percent from the Aug. 1 estimate, Honeycrisp is up 5.7 percent and Golden Delicious is up 4.7 percent, said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.
Harvest of those early varieties is basically done and the fact that they're that much greater than the first estimate means the total crop likely will grow from its Aug. 1 estimate of 108.7 million, fresh-packed, 40-pound boxes, Kelly said.
The new numbers for Gala, Golden and Honeycrisp are as of Oct. 1 from the Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association and Yakima Valley Grower-Shippers Association. They are the first estimates using actual harvest counts but will change through the year-long sales season as what is packed from storage versus culled fluctuates.
Gala was estimated at 22.3 million boxes on Aug. 1 but was estimated at 26.9 million on Oct. 1. The increase could be more hail grade apples than anticipated, Kelly said. Gala is second only to Red Delicious in the top five varieties in volume.
The labor shortage due to fewer migrants coming from California and Mexico is shaping up to be similar to last year, Kelly said.
About $80 million of Washington's $2 billion apple crop was left unpicked last fall because of late fruit maturity and a 5 to 10 percent picker shortage, industry officials have said.
"I know of one big grower with a lot of H2-A (foreign guestworkers) who says they are barely squeaking by. Across the board everyone is the same. We just need more people," Kelly said.
There were 707 job openings for apple and pear pickers posted with the state Department of Employment Security WorkSource as of Oct. 8, said Kirk Mayer, Growers Clearing House manager.
"I know some growers are prioritizing what they pick with hopes to get back to other varieties," Mayer said.
Sales are brisk with 9.1 million boxes shipped as of Oct. 7. That is 1.5 million boxes ahead of last year and 1.3 million ahead of two years ago, Kelly said, noting numbers slowed last year by the late crop.
"For the last two to three weeks we've been averaging 2.1 million to 2.3 million boxes per week, outpacing the last two years," he said. "We need that movement with a big crop."
Prices remain strong at $31.33 per box for all varieties as of Oct. 7 compared with $27.57 last year and $22.66 two years ago, Kelly said.
Prices do not appear to be too high particularly given light New York and Michigan crops due to bud damage from spring freezes, he said. New York anticipated a 15 million-box crop, half of normal, but the crop is turning out to be about 12 million boxes, he said.