Apple growers face near-record harvest, worker shortage

A sign, alongside State Route 124 advertises for apple harvesters. Apple growers throughout Washington state, including Broetje Orchards in Walla Walla County, are hunting for workers as the peak of the harvest season approaches.

A sign, alongside State Route 124 advertises for apple harvesters. Apple growers throughout Washington state, including Broetje Orchards in Walla Walla County, are hunting for workers as the peak of the harvest season approaches. Photo by Andy Porter.

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PRESCOTT — With the peak period for apple harvest fast approaching, Broetje Orchards, one of Walla Walla County’s largest employers, is scrambling to find pickers.

The company needs to hire hundreds of workers to pick fruit in the coming weeks and is having a hard time finding them, said Roger Bairstow, one of the company’s managing board members. And growers elsewhere are facing the same problem.

Last year Broetje Orchards was short 300 workers during harvest, Bairstow said, but they managed to get most apples off because it was a “short” crop. But good weather this year has left the trees laden with fruit. About a week ago the company had 800 picker positions to fill and while they have been able to fill 300, some 500 harvesters are still needed, he said Monday.

While the company has had some success recruiting workers from other states, not enough people are coming forward, Bairstow said in an earlier email. And despite having raised the starting wage to $11 an hour they are not finding many takers.

“The traditional critique is ‘you guys complain about (labor shortages) every year,’” Bairstow said Monday. But while manpower shortages have occurred regionally in the past, this time it is a nationwide phenomenon.

Bairstow attributed the major cause of the problem to increased deportations of undocumented immigrants. The present administration, taking up from the previous one, has been deporting people in record numbers, he said. But while politically popular, the policy is taking its toll on the agricultural sector.

“The quandary for agriculture is we can’t talk about border security without talking about food security,” he said.

According to the Port of Walla Walla, Broetje Orchards had the county’s largest work force in 2011 with 1,503 full-time employees and 385 part-time workers. The Washington State Penitentiary was the next-largest employer with 1,156 full-timers and 61 part-time employees.

Along with Broetje Orchards, growers throughout Washington state are worried about the shortage of skilled hands.

“There’s been reports from growers and field men that there seems to be fewer people looking for work,” Mike Gempler, executive director for the Washington Growers League in Yakima, said last week. Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House in Wenatchee, said he is receiving the same news.

Mayer said in October 2010, about 43,500 people were employed in the state’s apple harvest. The peak harvest is expected to begin about Sept. 24 and this year’s crop is expected to be a record-setter.

“The fresh crop is expected to be the second-largest on record,” Mayer said, with more than 109 million boxes, each equivalent to 40 pounds, forecast to be picked. The estimated total harvest this year for fresh and processed apples is 145 million boxes, up 13 percent from the 2011 crop.

“The point is there is an enormous crop expected and it will be a real shame if we can’t pick it,” Gempler said.

Some growers will have to “play triage” if harvest starts and they don’t have sufficient pickers, he said. “They’ll have to pick the highest value fruit first” and hope the remainder of the crop can be picked later for the processed market.

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