Mild winter invigorates orchards

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'Apples are making money right now, so everyone is putting care into their trees'

By STEVE BROWN

Capital Press

Agricultural employment is up across Washington state over the past year, growing by 6.4 percent between March 2011 and March 2012.

An April 18 report by the state Employment Security Department said that increase was driven largely by more apple tree pruning.

Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House, said a mild winter in Central Washington contributed to heavier foliage in the trees.

"Everyone is aggressively pruning, which reduces the production area in the tree and optimizes the potential for good fruit quality and allows more light penetration," he said.

Bruce Grimm, executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association, said it's not just pruning that creates more jobs. Orchard preparation includes planting and replanting to higher-density acreage and adding more trellis systems, which means more workers, he said.

"Apples are making money right now, so everyone is putting care into their trees," Stemilt Growers marketing director Roger Pepperl said. "That's something we would do every year regardless, as would all reputable companies."

Mayer said another factor was last year's cool spring, which delayed tree fruit harvest by as much as three weeks.

"Due to the concern over the lack of people in the area looking for work, tree fruit growers attempted to keep whoever was in the area busy working, with the hopes that they would stay for fruit harvest," Mayer said.

All six of the state's agricultural reporting areas had increases in total agricultural employment over the year. Of 4,030 jobs added in the past year, the largest increase -- 1,630 jobs -- was in the north central reporting area.

That compares with 58,300 more nonfarm jobs.

The greatest growth was in manufacturing, primarily aerospace products and parts, which added 14,600 jobs. Strong growth was also reported in the leisure and hospitality industry (11,800 jobs) and in education and health services (9,600). The greatest employment loss was in government, which lost 4,500 jobs.

Scott Dilley, with the Washington State Farm Bureau, said the numbers are a good sign.

"Our ag industry is the bedrock for the state economy and has helped sustain our state through the past several years," he said. "However, as the ag labor shortage demonstrated last fall, we still have more jobs than workers, and we will continue to need more workers into the future."

From February to March this year, statewide ag employment increased 3.5 percent, exceeding other private-sector employment, which grew by an average of 2.8 percent.

Washington employers added an estimated 3,300 jobs in March, marking 18 months of job growth in the past 19 months, the Employment Security Department reported.

The state's estimated unemployment rate remained unchanged in March, matching February's upwardly revised rate of 8.3 percent.

Agricultural employment estimates are developed by the agency's Labor Market and Economic Analysis branch. Estimates are based on a monthly survey of agricultural producers.

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