Acute labor shortage pushes growers to focus on varieties with highest value
By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- With pickers still picking, the 2011 Washington apple crop is now estimated at 101.7 million, 40-pound boxes, down 4 percent from the Aug. 1 forecast of 106.3 million boxes.
Some of the drop is a normal adjustment due to various factors. Some of it probably reflects fruit not picked to get to higher-value varieties during this season's picker shortage, said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.
The decrease is not significant given that traditionally the Aug. 1 forecast is 5 percent above or below final numbers, Kelly said.
The newest estimate, compiled Nov. 1 by the Wenatchee Valley Traffic Association and the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, comes with probably a record amount of fruit left to pick. That means marketers will look to the associations' Dec. 1 report for greater accuracy, Kelly said.
Sales so far this season have been good, he said, with 16.4 million boxes shipped as of Nov. 6 compared with 16.7 million a year ago and 19.9 million two years ago. The 19.9 million is more the norm since last year's crop was about a week late and this year's two weeks late.
Wholesale prices are high at $25.46 per box for all varieties season-to-date as of Oct. 29 compared with $21.37 a year earlier and $19.93 two years earlier, Kelly said. But prices don't appear to be too high as long as movement remains good, he said.
Sales of the 2010 crop wrapped up last month at 109.3 million boxes, the largest crop on record. Prices averaged $19.79 for 2010, which was good for so much volume, Kelly said. It should make the 2010 season one of the best for grower returns, he said. Prices averaged $19.05 for 2009 and $16.82 in 2008.
Meanwhile, a fair amount of late varieties of the 2011 crop remain to be picked and there will be losses, said Scott McDougall, co-owner of McDougall & Sons Inc., Wenatchee.
The company hired 105 prison inmates to pick higher-priced varieties at Quincy for a week. The inmates finished Nov. 4 and went back to Olympic Correction Center in Forks on Nov. 5, McDougall said.
"It worked out well. We had no security problems," he said. "One guy ended up picking as much as an experienced picker by the end of the week."
McDougall said he has 2,000 bins of fruit left to harvest and may make it if freezing temperatures don't worsen. Apples have barely thawed in daytime in recent days, shortening picking time and putting pressure on sales desks to sell such fruit quickly since it won't store well, he said.
If temperatures do not increase Nov. 7 as forecast, harvest will be over, McDougall said.
Gebbers Farms, a large grower-packer in Brewster, finished picking about Nov. 5 with Jamaican and Mexican H-2A guestworkers.
"We are very happy to be done. It was a good thing we had the H-2A workers because no one was coming to our door looking for work," said Sonya Gebbers Taylor, personnel director.
Jim Koempel, a Peshastin grower, said his remaining Cripps Pink would be picked for packing or picked for juicing, depending on how they weather the freezing.
Pear harvest is done but warehouses are trying to pack and quickly ship some low-pressure pears, he said.
Charles Lyall, a Mattawa grower, said he was done, but that some larger companies have a lot of apples to pick and some winegrapes remain.