Posted: Thursday, May 17, 2012 11:00 AM
Dan Wheat/Capital Press
Shawn Ballard shows green Bing cherry fruitlets in his East Wenatchee, Wash., orchard, May 15. He said his crop there and in Mattawa looks good. Growers anticipate bumper cherry, pear and apple crops.
Large fruit crop could put pickers in short supply
By DAN WHEAT
Large crops and labor are on the minds of many in the Washington tree fruit industry.
Good bud set, a warm spring without major freezes, good pollination and increasing production from newer plantings fuel anticipation of large cherry, pear and apple crops.
A near record 20.3-million-box Pacific Northwest cherry crop is forecast, pears may also be close to their record at 20.9 million boxes and there's talk of a 120-million-box Washington apple crop. That number seems unthinkable given 108.3 million boxes in 2008 and record 109.3 million in 2010.
Big crops should pressure on prices downward but may not for apples given freeze losses in Michigan and New York.
The bigger question is whether there will be enough pickers to get all the fruit off the trees. Pickers were short for pears and apples last fall and there's no signs of tightness easing.
"I think people are desperate for labor," said Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association in Olympia.
"The situation in Mexico is terrible. It's tough getting across the border. So people who want to come up and work and go back home are unable to," Fazio said.
The U.S. Department of Labor is making it harder to use the H-2A visa program and for the first time Washington asparagus growers couldn't find enough workers this spring, he said.
"Everyone is really worried about cherries because it's a big crop," Fazio said.
If there's a picker shortage for cherries it may create a serious problem for pears and apples. Pickers usually are attracted to cherries as they make more money on them, he said.
But Andy Gale, general manager of Stemilt AgServices in Wenatchee, is optimistic. He said pickers will come when they hear of the large size of Washington's crops and reduced crops in Michigan and New York.
A 120-million-box Washington apple crop is possible and 20.3 million boxes for Northwest cherries is realistic, Gale said.
Colder spots where there's normally freeze damage probably didn't get any and there's more blocks of newer plantings of cherries and apples producing, he said.
Large apple crop numbers are always bandied about this time of year, including 120 million this year, but there's no way to know until the first estimate in early August, said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association. Enough labor is definitely the big question, he said.
Shawn Ballard, a cherry grower in East Wenatchee and Mattawa, said his crop in both locations looks good.
"The frost season was easy," he said. "We're hoping for no rain."
Quality should be better than 2009, the last very large cherry crop of 20.4 million boxes, because the fruit set is not as heavy, Ballard said. This year's set is spread over more acres of trees, he said.
"People are pruning harder for size," Ballard said. They've figured out that if they don't they get smaller fruit and have a harder time selling it, he said.
Ballard said he has a base crew of 60 to 70 pickers who return every year for his 45 acres and supplements them with 20 to 30 more. Getting the 20 to 30 this year is the "wild card," he said, noting he's concerned and that everyone should be.
Posted By: CK On: 5/16/2012
There are a lot of teenage and young adults desperate for jobs in Western Washington. Most have vehicles and could work full time in the summer months or on holidays. If they had a campsite available at some of these farms and the farmers advertised through the Western WA high schools it may help fill the void of workers for part of the season. Just a thought.
Posted By: Kellyc On: 5/16/2012
First, fix your comments section and make it show under EMAIL that if you do not put email address in, your comment will be deleted and you need to start over., RUDE!!!
Comment: Maybe the State of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and others that are having problems finding laborers need to get together and entice those on state benefits. Make those on welfare or receiving some form of benefit from the state or federal gov. sign up for farm labor. Also, we NEED to lessen the requirements on the age for farm labor. We have continually pushed away good laborers that live locally and will do a good job. We can't hire anyone under 18 to pick berries or to drive a fully automated machine. Why would I want to hire an immigrant when I can't hire my neighbors son to do the same job and keep the money locally. Time to wake up and take care of some of our own people. If we do not do it soon we will lose even more farms and have less people working. Time for the State and Federal government to get a clue