May 20, 2024
USApple talks labor with Secretary of Agriculture, Labor Secretary

The U.S. Apple Association (USApple) entered into some high-level meetings with Washington, DC, officials, including the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, about the difficult topic of labor.

On May 20, Jim Bair, USApple president and CEO, and Diane Kurrle, senior vice president, met with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and the Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su. The meeting centered around agricultural labor. The Falls Church, Virginia-based USApple attended the meeting alongside other agriculture trade associations.

Jim Bair with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Jim is showing an economic analysis of apple production costs.
Jim Bair with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Bair is showing an economic analysis of apple production costs.

Apple growing, harvesting, and packing are highly labor intensive. The U.S. will produce 25 billion apples this year, and every single one must be hand-picked. Without an adequate domestic workforce, most apple growers have turned to the H-2A agricultural guestworker program. However, the cost of the H-2A program has become untenable, according to a news release.

“Presenting our case directly to two members of President Biden’s Cabinet is a promising start,” Bair said in the release. “The situation is long overdue for action, and fixing it in a deeply-divided Congress is unlikely. We continue to ensure that apple growers’ voices are heard at the highest levels of government and will push for any White House actions that can help, knowing it will be an uphill climb.”

With escalating H-2A costs, labor now makes up more than 60% of production costs for apple growers. In contrast, according to the latest USDA Ag Census, labor accounted for 12% of expenses for all U.S. farms.

Jim Bair with Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su.
Jim Bair with Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su.

To make matters more dire, over the last year, retail prices for apples have declined by 14%. The prices farmers receive are down by much more. Farmgate Honeycrisp prices, for instance, are down by as much as 50% or more year-over-year.

“This is particularly hard on growers as, in the year leading up to this season, the costs to grow apples were up 34% due to inflation and increasing labor costs,” according to the release.

The Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) continues to outpace the general marketplace with year-over-year rates increasing about 7% in most apple states. Growers from large to small and coast-to-coast report input costs that far exceed their returns. The government must come up with a better, more accurate way of setting the wage rate, according to the release.

USApple is a national trade association representing all segments of the apple industry. Members include 36 state and regional apple associations, representing 26,000 apple growers and more than 3,700 apple-related companies. USApple’s members collectively grow more than 10 billion pounds of apples a year on average, supporting about 150,000 jobs and generating more than $8 billion in total wages and almost $23 billion in economic activity.

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