Record number of apple pickers not enough for huge crop
By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- A record number of people worked in Washington's record apple harvest this past fall, but still some apples were left on trees because more pickers were needed, sources say.
There were 55,653 seasonal apple workers working in October, 54,543 in September and the previous high was 48,065 in October of 2009, said John Wines, an economist for the state Department of Employment Security in Olympia. Among other duties, Wines has been tracking tree fruit labor for 18 years.
The 55,653 workers is indicative of the record 129.2-million-box crop requiring more workers but does not mean there was not a shortage, he said.
The department's monthly survey of 1,100 growers of all crops, not just tree fruit, showed the shortage peaked at 8.8 percent more workers needed in September 2012 while peaking at 8.6 percent in September 2011, Wines said.
"That number is driven by apple growers," he said.
The 55,653 is a significant increase and encouraging because it shows growers were able to get more people, said Kirk Mayer, manager of Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.
But the 8.8 percent shortage in September and 7.5 percent shortage in August still are significant, Mayer said.
"I heard reports of growers with blocks they didn't pick because they were short pickers and couldn't get to it in a timely fashion," he said.
Other fruit went to processing for juice because it couldn't be picked on time, he said.
In 2011, about $80 million of Washington's $2 billion apple crop was left unpicked because of late fruit maturity and a 5 to 10 percent picker shortage, industry officials estimated.
Mayer said he doesn't know if the 2012 shortage was the same, worse or not as bad as 2011, but that he heard it was more widespread.
Wines said he thinks 2011 probably was worse because crops were later due to a cool, wet spring and there was more overlapping of harvests and competition for workers. Pears overlapped apples more, he noted.
Fewer harvest days were lost to bad weather in 2012 which helped, Mayer said.
Growers used Employment Security's WorkSource more and hired more inexperienced workers which boosted worker numbers and helped but they were also less productive than experienced workers, Mayer said. Increased usage of H-2A foreign guestworkers helped, he said.
The U.S. Department of Labor certified 4,546 H-2A workers for Washington state in 2012, compared with 3,182 in 2011 and 2,991 in 2010, he said. Most of those worked in tree fruit, he said.
Mayer said he was surprised a 3.4 percent all crop labor shortage in October 2012 was not higher because of the huge apple crop and that 1.6 percent in November wasn't lower because many growers said they had full crews in November.
Wines said growers paid higher wages from 2010 to 2011 which helped keep and attracted workers and probably increased pay again in 2012.
The average rate for a full bin of picked apples in November 2010 was $19.65 compared with $22.77 in 2011, an increase of 15.9 percent, Wines said. It helped result, he said, in an increase in workers from 12,560 in November 2010 to 18,170 in November 2011.
Department figures show apple orchards wages paid increased from $426.7 million in 2010 to $450.9 million in 2011.