The difficulty Washington farmers face in finding enough skilled seasonal workers may limit how much labor-intensive crops like apples and wine grapes they can grow.
Columbia Basin and Yakima Valley farmers have been adding acres of hops, blueberries and wine grapes. And older apple orchards have been replanted, with the new orchards denser and more fruitful.
But that means more workers are needed for harvest and other work such as pruning.
Ron Reimann of T & R Farms in Franklin County said apple growers are going to have to figure out different ways to do the same orchard tasks with fewer people.
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"We are headed into a real interesting time," he said.
The productivity of apple workers is up because older orchards have been replaced with denser ones using trellis systems. Shorter ladders can be used, and some growers are using platforms to help workers pick more, said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.
Work is already being done to mechanize tasks now done by hand and improve existing machines.
In some cases, the technology just isn't there yet, said Dick Boushey, a Grandview wine grape grower. But in other cases, it's a mindset. Most wine grapes are machine-picked, but premium grapes are hand-picked. Boushey's 160 acres of wine grapes are all hand-picked, headed to about 35 different wineries.
Research would need to be done to show machine-picking doesn't mean compromising on quality before makers of premium wine would be willing to accept machine-picked grapes, Boushey said.
When grapes are machine-picked, they form a slurry and must be processed in eight hours or less so fermentation doesn't start outside the winery, Boushey said. Some wineries aren't set up to accept machine-picked fruit.
The cost difference to growers is huge. Hand-picking grapes costs $165 to $200 a ton, while machine-picking runs $50 or less a ton, he said.
Labor costs have been pushed up by the competition for workers within the limited labor force.
Farmers can't pass increased costs on to the customer who ultimately eats the hand-picked apple or drinks the wine, said Scott Dilley, Washington Farm Bureau associate director of government relations.
"Farmers get squeezed," he said.