Mixed reports on apple picker shortage

Joel Mendez Rodriguez, an H-2A guest worker, clips stems while harvesting Fuji apples in a Stemilt AgServices orchard near Quincy, Wash., on Oct. 10. Many large Washington tree fruit companies have increased their use of H-2A visa foreign workers to have enough pickers for apple harvest.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — As Washington’s three-month apple harvest winds down, perspectives vary on the severity of the season’s picker shortage.

In general, large tree fruit companies who could afford to hire more H-2A foreign guest workers fared better than small growers who have a harder time meeting H-2A wage, housing and transportation requirements.

“We are satisfied with our labor currently. Our guest worker program has worked out to our expectations and we’ve been able to harvest our crop according to proper maturity,” said Cass Gebbers, president and CEO of Gebbers Farms, Brewster, one of the largest H-2A users.

He would not say how many H-2A workers the company hired this year, but a year ago the company’s governmental affairs director, Jon Wyss, said it had 1,347 H-2A workers.

Gebbers said the company would finish harvest in the next couple of days and has been satisfied with its finish dates the last couple of years with the help of guest workers. Prior to that the company had some difficult harvests.

Zirkle Fruit Co., Selah, could have used more workers this year even with more than 1,000 H-2A workers, Mark Zirkle, the company president, has said.

The U.S. Department of Labor approved 6,194 H-2A guest workers for Washington this year, up from 4,546 in 2012 and 3,182 in 2011, the Washington Farm Labor Association has said.

Labor has been adequate after being tight in September, said Kirk Mayer, manager of Washington Growers Clearing House Association, Wenatchee. The September shortage was magnified by several rainy days that delayed harvest, he said.

Scott McDougall, co-president of McDougall & Sons, Wenatchee, said the company was not tight at all this year because of its continued increase of H-2A workers, now at 475. In 2011, McDougall hired state prison inmates at the end of the season to make it through a labor shortage.

September is crunch time because more apple varieties and pears are harvested then, said Harold Schell, director of field services at Chelan Fruit Cooperative.

The co-op has about 300 member growers with few if any using H-2A, Schell said. They could have used 25 to 30 percent more pickers in September, he said.

“It was difficult. We tried to share workers around but everyone was short. We got through it but it’s been getting progressively worse for a number of years,” Schell said.

It’s driven by an increase in acreage of September-harvested Honeycrisp and a decline of Red Delicious, which is harvested in October, he said.

The shortage eased in October and everything will get harvested, he said.

Dave Taber, a small Oroville grower, grappled with a shortage in 2011, had a smooth harvest in 2012 when he hired 12 H-2A workers but didn’t hire any this season because he didn’t think he needed them. He had a lighter crop.

He boosted wages $3 to $5 per bin to the level of H-2A rates and still lost pickers to other orchards, he said.

“We got it done but I was nervous the whole time. I’m going back to H-2A next year,” he said.

He has been able to provide housing for H-2A workers through the Oroville Housing Authority, saving the likely prohibitive cost of building his own.

Some small growers, he said, are want out of the business because of tight labor and increasing food safety regulations.

Pear growers in the upper Wenatchee Valley got everything harvested but not without paying pickers more and having trouble getting and keeping enough pickers, said Dennis Nicholson, a grower. They had to pay more, he said.

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