Apples weigh in as second largest Washington crop

Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldNovember 23, 2013 

Broetje Harvest Bins 2013.jpg

Yesenia Gutierrez of Pasco picks Granny Smith apples earlier this month at Broetje Orchards near Prescott.

BOB BRAWDY — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Washington farmers had a tight labor supply this year but still managed to harvest the state's second largest crop.

An estimated 113.2 million 40-pound boxes of apples were picked this year, about 15 million fewer boxes than last year's crop.

"We are going to have a good supply of quality fruit," said Jon DeVaney, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association.

Apples still were being picked into November, with the last orchards wrapping up about two weeks ago.

Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission, said the fall weather was ideal for finishing harvest, with no serious freezes.

For the most part, the state saw slightly larger fruit than last year, he said.

Last year's conditions were so ideal that no one was expecting to see a repeat this year, DeVaney said.

The 2012 crop ended up being larger than anyone expected at 128.2 million boxes, since some orchards were able to pick into December, DeVaney said.

Demand for Washington apples remains strong this year, he said. Some customers who bought the state's apples last year because of shortages in other growing areas are returning this year even though those areas have apples.

Already, DeVaney said they've shipped about 20 percent of this year's crop.

Prices remain good, DeVaney said, although they are not as high as last year, when Michigan and New York suffered crop losses.

Ron Reimann of T & R Farms in Franklin County said some apples got hammered by weather, like some other crops.

He estimates he lost about 10 percent of his apple crop to wind, which knocked the apples to the ground.

Still, "our quality and our yield were excellent," he said. And he said he felt fortunate that his orchard got by with as little damage as it did, since other orchards were devastated.

Finding workers was not a challenge this year as many of the orchard's regular seasonal employees returned, Reimann said.

Labor: A long-term problem in Washington

Washington had some problem areas with labor this year, but overall, DeVaney said, the weather was good enough and harvest spread out enough that most farmers had the workers they needed.

"It was tight all the way through the season," Fryhover said.

Not a lot of job seekers returned to the area this year because of smaller yields but there were still enough to pick what most farmers needed, said Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist for Benton and Franklin counties.

The region's seasonal work force for agriculture was smaller when compared to last year, but last year was one of the best years for agricultural employment, she said. Permanent farm jobs have remained stable, with some slight growth.

Still, a supply of workers remains a long-term concern for an industry that depends on skilled workers to hand-pick each apple, DeVaney said.

Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, doesn't hesitate to point out how much of a challenge the lack of a legal and stable work force is for farmers.

And, "it's going to get progressively worse," he said.

The U.S. Department of Labor certified a record number of H-2A program guest workers this year, said Kirk Mayer, manager of the Wenatchee-based Washington Growers Clearing House.

The state has had a seasonal farm labor shortage for several years, as growth of production has outpaced the increases to the number of available workers, he said.

The H-2A program and the development of mechanical aids are among the strategies farmers have turned to, Mayer said.

"Growers are trying to figure out any way possible to address the shortage," he said.

Without the 6,000 foreign workers farmers and employers brought into the state using the federal H-2A program, it wouldn't have been possible to bring in this year's apple harvest, Fazio said. That's up 50 percent from the number of H-2A workers last year.

Fazio said he expects to see the demand continue as farmers hunt for a legal and stable work force.

This summer, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement audited some agricultural employers' I-9 forms, which workers fill out with information such as Social Security numbers. But Fazio said the results were not back until after harvest was completed.

This was lucky, he said, since anyone who can't legally work in the country is fired after the audit results are in -- they aren't deported.

Next year likely will be tough, since current signs point to fewer workers and a larger crop, he said. Newer trees are coming into maturity, producing more fruit and the recovery of the construction industry is luring some farmworkers away.

It's nice to see some widespread recognition that the immigration system is broken, but DeVaney said getting agreement on what changes should be made and getting them done is not so easy.

Fazio said, "We need to legalize the people that are here and we need to make it easier for people to use the legal program to get people here than it is to come here illegally."

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