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Nov 6, 2012
Washington apple growers short of workers

While much of the nation has a shortage of apples this season due to the spring freezes, Washington state is having a banner crop. The surplus is creating a serious problem for the state’s apple growers, however, as they struggle to find enough labor.

Apples are the state’s top farm commodity, generating about $7 billion annually and supporting nearly 60,000 jobs in growing and processing, according to the Washington Apple Commission (WAC). October is the peak harvest month, and the time when labor is needed the most.

In a normal season, about 10 billion to 12 billion apples are harvested by hand annually in Washington. The industry predicted a crop of 145 million bushels this year, which would push the number closer to 18 billion hand-harvested apples.

“Most, but not all growers are approximately 10 percent below optimum labor needs,” said Todd Fryhover, WAC’s chairman.

In mid-October, apple harvest was in full swing in most production areas. Many growers reported that they were picking apples with less than a full crew, said Kirk B. Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association.

According to Washington State Employment Security WorkSource, as of Oct. 8 there were 707 openings for tree fruit pickers, with most of those positions in the Yakima and Columbia Basin areas. More detail on those openings can be found at www.wa.gov/esd/farmworkers/farm_jobs.htm.

Labor shortages force growers to decide which apples to pick and which to ignore. Both Fryhover and Mayer had heard that growers might resort to leaving apples on the trees if they couldn’t find enough workers to harvest them.

“I have heard some growers are making variety choices in the field due to labor shortages, but it’s really difficult to talk with the growers because they are working day and night this time of the year,” Fryhover said.

Last season, Washington growers resorted to petitioning the state to allow them to use prison labor to help harvest the crop. No mention of that option had come up as of mid-October.

By Derrek Sigler, Assistant Editor





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