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Several prominent Washington tree fruit grower-shippers say they foresee labor shortages but are not banking on mechanization and robotic harvesters to resolve them.

The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission is funding the development of a robotic apple harvesting system, but during a panel discussion at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting in Wenatchee, Doug Pauly dismissed mechanization as a solution to labor shortages.

Pauly, who is operations manager at Northern Fruit Company, Wenatchee, expressed skepticism that a robot could reach into a tree to pick apples at the same speed as a human and said he thought the expense of the robotic machines would be prohibitive. "The first priority has to be volume and quality. I think mechanization is the Holy Grail. I think the Research Commission is pouring money down a rat hole right now.

"We’re not holding our breath for robotics at all," he added. "I think it’s ridiculous." However, boosting labor crews by using the federal H-2A foreign guest-worker program isn’t a viable solution for a small company like Northern, either, he said. "Just the idea of putting in new housing, and all the hassle and fine print that comes with that is daunting. Our Plan A is to stick with what we’re doing now in terms of trying to recruit from the local areas and try to create a good enough work environment that it attracts workers in. So far, it’s been successful."

Pauly said growers trying to recruit workers need to do more than just put up a sign at the orchard. They need to advertise all the benefits that they can offer to employees.

Reduce labor needs

John Borton of Borton & Sons, Inc., Yakima, said his company’s strategy in both the short and long term is to reduce its labor requirements. "We’ve been trying to focus on what creates an environment that maximizes worker efficiency and productivity so the workers’ earnings potential is maximized. We try to spread our ranch sites and lengthen our harvest window to maximize the length of the harvest season for the worker."

Having orchards in the early districts as well as the mid and late districts helps even out the labor requirements. The same crew can be used for apple thinning, then cherry harvest, early apple harvest, and late apple harvest. This maintains a steady supply of work from June until November, he said.

Use of mechanization will depend on the supply of labor and its relative cost, he added. There may be some area for mechanization to reduce costs. "But right now, I see mechanization costs higher than our labor costs," he added.

Borton & Sons has tried putting workers on platforms for pruning and thinning, but has not found them to be more efficient, he said. Managers have been reluctant to use them because of costs.

"I don’t see mechanical harvesting in the future as practical unless you’re willing to sacrifice a large percentage of the crop to the processor," he added. "Mech–anization is certainly going to raise the cullage rate."

West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, doubted that mechanized systems would be practical on hillside orchards. He envisions that in order to compete for labor, growers might have to provide nice housing, recreational facilities, and transportation, but stressed that having good, trained supervisors in the field is also critical in making people want to work at a particular orchard.

Stuart McDougall at McDougall & Sons, Wenatchee, said that in view of the uncertain political climate, his company is planning to use the H-2A guest-worker program and is working to provide the necessary infrastructure, such as housing. "We’re trying to set ourselves up for the worst-cast scenario."

Guaranteed

Last year, McDougall was ready to use the H-2A program but didn’t need to, he said. However, in the future, the company will hire H-2A workers as the basis of its labor force and supplement them with people hired at the orchard. "That’s a big change for us," he said. "We need the guaranteed labor force."

Pauly noted that if the Social Security Administration introduces a system allowing instant checking of identification cards, it could put a big crimp in the labor supply. However, while there’s a strong feeling in the United States that immigrants shouldn’t be allowed into the country, such trends tend to be cyclical, Pauly noted.

"Hopefully, it will mellow back down as people recognize that immigrants are an essential part of our strength econom–ically and part of the United States’s –dominance worldwide is based on the fact that we do have talented, hard-working people coming in," he said.

Mathison said a terrorist attack on U.S. soil would change that, however, and the pendulum would swing in the opposite direction. "As long as we don’t have an attack on U.S. soil, regulations will be slow coming," he predicted. "If we do, they will come fast."

Pauly questioned whether the industry really wants more labor. When prices are high, as they are now, the industry typically expands with new plantings, which can increase production rapidly, leading to lower returns, he said. A limited labor supply might cause people to hesitate about ramping up production and overplanting, he suggested. "If you’re thinking of planting another 500-acre block in the [Columbia] Basin, you have to think, ‘Do we have the labor to handle it?’"