Washington’s Strong Apple Crop In Danger Of Going Unpicked

Sep 10, 2012

Washington state apple farmers are gearing up to harvest 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 shortage comes as apple prices are high because of crop damage elsewhere in the country. Correspondent Anna King has our report from an apple orchard outside of Prescott, Washington.

The start of apple harvest should be the happiest, busiest time of year in the orchards. But now, weeks before the peak, managers here at Broetje Orchards are wincing. I talk with Broetje manager Roger Bairstow.
Anna King: “How do you sleep at night because that just seems like a very hard thing to have that many people missing?”

Roger Bairstow: “Ah, there are quite a few of us that aren’t sleeping through the night.”

SOUND: Tractor

There are about 1,500 workers out in the trees now working tall aluminum ladders and picking beautiful dusty-red apples off the trees. Music plays from the smart phones of workers and buckeye Gala apples thud gently into the waiting bins.

SOUND: Ladder clinking and tree branch picking snap sound, Mexican radio

But this operation needs another 800 people now just to get through harvest and not fall behind. Bairstow says apples have a limited branch-life.

Roger 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.”

So if they fall behind, those past-prime apples will be left to rot. That makes R.C. Perez, an orchard foreman really upset.

R.C. Perez: “Yeah, it is it’s horrible. It’s sad.”

SOUND: General orchard ambi

Broetje Orchards is not alone. This year’s fresh crop in Washington is at about 108.7 million 40-pound-equivalent boxes. That’s the second largest on record. And Bairstow and Perez say they’ve never seen labor so tight as this year. Some farmers are buying commuter vans to port workers from one orchard to the next, and paying for the extra commute time. Bairstow says a top-rate picker could earn about 1-thousand dollars a week. Prices for pickers have also ballooned up 15 percent from last year in some areas this year. And some workers are earning "stay put" bonuses if they stay on a particular farm the entire season. We stand overlooking, hundreds of acres of green trees and bright apples on a dramatic bluff above the Columbia River.

Roger Bairstow: “By the end of November we’ll have the crop God willing in, and we’ll have a huge party and everyone will be a part of it because they made it all happen.”

Apple crop is just starting in the warmer sites of Washington's growing areas. Cooler places like Wenatchee and Omak have just begun. But as more and more farms come online for harvest, growers like Bairstow worry the worker shortage will only turn more rotten.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio