YAKIMA, Wash. — Apple growers say they could have had one of their best years ever if a shortage of workers hadn't forced them to leave some fruit on trees.
Growers in Washington state, which produces about half of the nation's apples, say the labor shortage was made worse by a late start to their harvest. The growing season got off to a slow start because of a cold, wet spring, and some migrant workers didn't stick around to wait for it.
But farmers say an immigration crackdown by the federal government and states such as Arizona and Alabama scared off many more workers. They have tried to replace them with domestic workers with little success and inmates at a much greater cost. Many growers have resorted to posting "pickers wanted" signs outside their orchards and asking neighbors to send prospective workers their way.
Jeff Pheasant and his sister Darla Grubb are the fourth generation in their family to grow apples near Soap Lake, about 120 miles east of Seattle. They said their harvest was a week behind because the fruit wasn't ripe, then another week behind because they had no workers to pick it.
Pheasant Orchards usually has 65 workers at the peak of harvest. Only 50 pickers arrived this year, and many were inexperienced, Pheasant said.
"You have to have people," Grubb said. "They're the reason we have fruits and vegetables. We couldn't do this without our workers."
About 15 billion apples are picked in Washington each year, all by hand. Orchards line the hillsides and valleys east of the Cascade Range from the Canadian border in the north to the Columbia River in the south.
Growers have struggled for years with labor shortages, but they say this harvest season is one of the toughest yet. Typically, about 70 percent of the state's farmworkers are in the country illegally. But many Mexican and other migrant workers stayed away this year after some states passed tougher immigration laws and the federal government cracked down.
"We've been dealing with this for a number of years now, and until something changes at the federal level, growers are going to struggle having enough workers," said Mike Gempler, a farm labor contractor for Washington growers.
Gov. Chris Gregoire assembled a delegation of 15 farmers last month for a trip to Washington, D.C., where they urged Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform. At the time, Gregoire estimated the state still needed 4,000 workers to complete the harvest, which could have been the third-largest in state history.
"Our problem now is: How do we get it off the trees?" Gregoire said. "We don't have a work force, and that is at the doorstop of the federal government."
Farmers in other states also are struggling with a labor shortage. A Georgia pilot program matching probationers with farmers needing harvesters had mixed results. Some Alabama farmers tried hiring American citizens after the state's new immigration law chased away migrant workers, but they said the new employees were often ready to call it a day by mid-afternoon. Many quit after a day or two.
In Washington, a state office that matches workers with available jobs posted hundreds of openings at orchards with few takers, and many farmers complained that those who did apply were too inexperienced.
Some critics say growers would have enough workers if they paid more. Washington has the highest minimum wage in the country at $8.67 per hour. Apple pickers are often paid based on how much they pick, but they're guaranteed at least minimum wage.
Erik Nicholson, Pacific Northwest director for the United Farmworkers of America labor union, said that's not enough to attract a steady labor supply.
A growing number of farmers have turned to a federal guest-worker program to bring in foreign workers, despite longstanding complaints that it's too cumbersome and expensive to be of any real help. Growers in the program generally must pay a higher wage, plus provide housing and transportation in and out of the country.
The Labor Department approved about 4,200 guest-workers for Washington this year — up from nearly 2,100 three years ago — but that's far fewer than the thousands needed to work each year.
McDougall & Sons orchard, which has been family-owned for five generations, brought in 240 foreign workers under the program. A one-week extension to their contract kept them here until the end of October, but their exodus left the orchard short pickers when the harvest still wasn't done.
That's when Scott McDougall became the only grower to accept the governor's offer of inmate labor.
More than 100 inmates arrived, with security officers in tow, to pick Jazz apples, which are in limited production and have a higher value. Each inmate cost $22 per hour, which McDougall pays the state to cover transportation, food, housing and security.
"I'd say they're probably picking about half what an experienced picker would pick," he said. "The value of the fruit obviously — vs. having it frozen on the tree — warrants the higher rate."
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