Washington state apple growers are harvesting the second-largest crop in history, but it appears there won't be enough workers to get the fruit off the trees quickly enough. The bulk of the region’s fruit will be picked in the next few weeks. As Correspondent Anna King reports, the labor shortage comes as apple prices are high.
This should be the happiest, busiest time of year in the orchards. But now just as the peak of apple harvest is coming on manager Roger Bairstow is wincing.
Bairstow: “Ah, there are quite a few of us that aren’t sleeping through the night.”
We’re at the massive Broetje Orchards on the flank of the Snake River in southeast Washington. Right now, Broetje has nearly 2,000 workers. They’re out in the trees on tall aluminum ladders, plucking dusty-red and green apples from the trees.
Music plays from the smart phones of workers. Gala apples thud gently into the waiting bins.
Bairstow says the orchard still needs at least 200 more experienced workers. And apples have a limited branch-life.
Bairstow: “So the longer an apple stays on the tree, the worse the condition gets and the longer the apple stays on the market. So at some point it’s not even worth picking.”
If the fruit are left on the tree too long they can only be used for apple sauce or juice – which is less profitable. Or they’ll be left on the branches to rot.
The labor shortage comes as Washington state’s apples are worth more. That’s because competitors like New York, Michigan, Canada and Europe have low-yields this year due to bad weather. And, China, the world’s biggest apple producer, is keeping more of its fruit at home to feed an expanding middle class.
With the strong market, Washington farmers are going to extremes to get and keep workers. Some are buying commuter vans to port employees from one orchard to the next. Others are paying up to 15-percent more in wages, or giving bonuses for workers who stay the whole season. Broetje is building its own rental apartments in town and advertising for pickers as far away as Arizona and Ohio. The fastest workers can earn about a-thousand-dollars a week.
Ruiz Olman: “The price is good. Yeah, the price.”
Apple picker Ruiz Olman is earning about 50-dollars more each week compared to last year. And for him this orchard is easier to get to from where he lives.
Olman: “Here I like the work here. Here, here is good, yeah.”
This work is physically very hard. Jeff Rippon is a manager at nearby Chiawana Orchards. He says pickers have to scale tall ladders, and carry 40-pound sacks of apples on their chests for at least 8-hours a day. He’ll hire anyone that wants the work, but he still has trouble finding enough people.
Rippon: “I’ve been picking apples since 1965 and I’ve never seen a white person pick for more than an hour.”
Anna King: “Like seriously?”
Jeff Rippon: “Seriously! By the time you get the paperwork done, they’ve decided it’s too hard to do.”
And another problem for farmers: Fewer migrant workers are coming up from Mexico. That’s because there’s more violence there and increased security on the border. It’s too late to fix these problems for this year, but farmers are planning for the future. Some are planting new shorter trees so picking is easier. Others are developing mobile platforms to help pickers gather apples without ladders. Rippon says one way or another, growers who want to stay in business will have to address the labor shortage.
Rippon: “A few people will go broke and a few people will make a whole lot of money. And the ones that will make money are the ones that can adapt to change. It’s just a fact of life.”
As for now apple farmers are racing winter. Workers will stop showing up in the orchards as colder weather sets in. Many farmers worry that in these next few weeks the worker shortage will only turn more rotten.
Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio