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Rick Lagaah estimates he lost half of his crop because he couldn’t find enough pickers to harvest his 100 acres of apples. “I only found seven pickers,” said the 27-year-old orchardist in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, who says he has never experienced such a severe shortage of workers during his seven years of farming. He normally has no trouble finding pickers through the agricultural employment office at the Ki-Low-Na Friendship Centre or the nearby drop-in center.

Lagaah said this year he was compelled to scour downtown parks, talking to transients and homeless people in search of workers. However, even raising their pay to $25 a bin, up from $16 three years ago, failed to attract or retain pickers.

“This year I had to do what I had to do,” he said. “Some helped me out, but most of them didn’t stay for long.” Lagaah said he plans to give notice of termination on much of his leased property.

“The way it’s going, I can’t just continue,” he said. “It’s not easy to grow apples. You have to spend money to do it.”

Marv Baker of the agricultural employment office, which typically provides casual help for about 100 growers, said this was the worse year he has ever seen for finding job placements.

He blamed the strong local economy, which is creating numerous nonagricultural job opportunities, as well as the proliferation of Gala apples.

“There are a lot of Gala apples planted in the (Okanagan) valley, and they ripen the same time as McIntosh,” he said. “When you have both varieties ripening at the same time, it’s tough to find enough pickers.”

Gala is now the preferred apple of Okanagan growers, comprising 27 percent of the total crop, said Joe Sardinha, president of the British Columbia Fruit Growers’ Association. McIntosh is the number-two variety, at about 20 percent.

Workers who travel to British Columbia from elsewhere in Canada, mainly Quebec, often leave before the second week of September, when much of the apple crop is ready for harvest.

“About half of them are students, and they come here for June, July, and August,” Baker said.

Help neighbors

Glenn Cross, who has been farming his family’s 43 acres in Kelowna for 29 years, said he noticed a shortage of pickers even though he was able to get his crop harvested.

“I have 14 pickers living here, which is enough,” said Cross. “But my neighbors definitely had a real shortage of pickers. When I had days that I didn’t need my pickers, I shipped them off to my neighbors. We try to help each other.”

Karmjit Gill in Kelowna had his 100-acre crop destroyed by hail and has listed his farm for sale. Gill, 45, said he had 300 to 400 bins of apples on the ground, and he had trouble finding workers to help him shake the trees to remove the damaged fruit.

“Last year I had a large labor problem, and this year I can’t get any labor either. I can’t decide what I’m going to do. Now I am very experienced in the orchard business, and I can’t make money. I’m looking at planting grapes, but I can’t decide what to do. If I sell the orchard, maybe I’ll decide on another business.”

“It was very tight,” Sardinha said of the worker situation. “I’m figuring if we hadn’t had the widespread hail damage, we would have been short by a couple hundred workers.”

Gary Schiek, general manager of the Okanagan Tree Fruit Company, said he estimates the 2006 apple crop will be down about 20 percent from two years ago because of hailstorms that swept through the province in early July, causing an estimated $10 million to $12 million damage to crops.

Mexican workers

He noted that Indo-Canadian immigrants, who once formed a large part of the agricultural work force, are now buying and leasing orchards, so they’re not available for temporary employment.

About 300 workers from Mexico were brought into the Okanagan Valley with the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker program, and Sardinha said he expects that number to increase next year.

“We definitely have to rely more heavily on the seasonal worker program,” he said. “But you need sleeping quarters, bath or shower facilities, and a kitchen, and a lot of the smaller orchards don’t have the facilities to meet the program’s requirements.”

He said that one solution may be housing grants, and his association is investigating that possibility.

Despite the increasing number of grape growers in the area, apples are still the province’s major fruit crop, with about 75 percent of orchard land planted in apples.

Terry Edwards is a freelance writer in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, who specializes in articles about agricultural issues.