Good apple crop expected despite labor shortage

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldOctober 21, 2012 

Labor has been one of the challenges Washington apple growers have faced this year as they try to take advantage of the opportunity created by hard-hit apple crops in the Midwest and East Coast.

Mike Gempler, executive director of the Yakima-based Washington Grower League, estimates there is a 20 percent labor shortage with this year's apple harvest.

For some growers, that means deciding to harvest newer, higher-value orchards and not picking in older ones, he said.

He and others hope the weather holds so workers can get the apples off the trees for the fresh market and processors, who use apples for juice, applesauce, cider and ingredients.

Despite statewide hail damage cutting into what had promised to be the state's largest fresh apple crop, the crop is expected to be the state's second-largest. And apples that don't make it to the fresh market likely will head to processors.

Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House in Wenatchee, said there have been spot labor shortages throughout the tree fruit production areas. Harvest will wind down from its peak after this week and finish the first week in November.

"There's quite a few growers that would still be interested in hiring a few more experienced workers," Mayer said.

Some orchardists are finishing up, freeing their workers for other growers, Mayer said. Red Delicious, Pink Lady, Braeburn and Fuji apples are being harvested now.

Estimates put the amount of fresh apples at about 108.7 million boxes, each weighing about 40 pounds, Mayer said. The actual harvest won't be known until November.

This year, Mayer said he expects to see more apples head to the processed market because of lower apple harvests in the rest of the country.

Last year, 22.7 million boxes of apples went to processors, and 108.5 million were sold as fresh apples, he said.

With production dramatically increasing, the demand for seasonal farm workers has rapidly grown and exceeded the labor supply, officials said.

Jon Warling, co-owner of Mar Jon Labor LLC of Othello, said he has enough workers for his contracts, which are about the same as 2011.

However, the need for labor seems to be increasing -- and so are the number of labor contractors, he said.

But Warling said he hasn't taken on additional clients, despite the prospect of new business. He recently had about 590 workers on the payroll.

Warling, who also has his own orchards, said he can keep about 250 workers busy for 10 months of the year. He said he has a good reputation of paying every week and correcting mistakes, which helps in attracting workers.

His crews start in April by transplanting carrots and sugar beets. The work ends in November with apple harvest, but there are many tasks in between, which include weeding onions and thinning apples.

The work is physically demanding, Warling said, but some workers can make as much as $250 a day. He said he recently had a couple who each received about $1,700 for one week of work.

Right now, Ryan Ayres, Mercer Canyons chief financial officer, said his company found enough workers and used labor contractors more than ever. But the Horse Heaven Hills operation needed to pay more this year to compete with apple orchards, he said.

And while Mercer Canyons has enough workers, neighboring farms don't. He said the others are short in part because Mercer Canyons -- the largest farm in that area -- attracted the workers.

Michelle Mann, WorkSource Columbia Basin area manager, said those growers who have listed jobs seem to be getting their needs met.

"We are not seeing any growers hitting the panic button yet," she said.

But it is something the state is keeping a careful eye on, Mann said.

Statewide, WorkSource had about 721 job openings for apple pickers listed this week, according to the agency's website. Of those, 131 were from the Columbia Basin.

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