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Labor squeeze feared

Large fruit crop could put pickers in short supply


Capital Press

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.


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