Hiring prisoners to pick the tail end of their apple crop was a “last ditch” effort, but Scott McDougall believes it paid off. With 8,000 bins of an exclusive club variety left to pick, only 50 workers left in his harvest crews, and winter weather fast approaching, he was desperate.
Last October, Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire, already alerted by state horticultural leaders of a labor shortage that was causing growers to abandon fruit-laden orchards, announced she would allow low-security-risk prisoners to pick the state’s apple crop. However, growers using the prisoners would have to bear the full costs (housing, security, and such), with no taxpayer money spent. At $22 per hour, few growers were interested.
McDougall and Sons, a Wenatchee-based grower-packer, took the prisoner offer.
The company had already received a week’s extension for their H-2A temporary workers, but once the H-2A workers left in late October, their work force dropped from 240 to 50, with some high-value Jazz apples still on the trees.
“It was a desperation act,” McDougall said, adding that he knew they had about a week left of harvest but not enough workers to get the crop off before winter weather set in.
McDougall estimated that the prisoner work force cost $50 to $53 per bin in harvest costs. “We would have had to pay around $25 per bin to attract workers from other growers, so it ended up costing an extra $30 per bin. But the apples were worth about $300 a bin.
“It wouldn’t be something we would do with a normal-valued variety, but for that type of crop, it was worth it.”
The prisoners were first set up in tents and then moved into housing provided by McDougall. He said the security and administrative aspects of hiring the prisoners were handled well. By the end of the week, some of the prisoners were actually getting efficient at picking, he said.
The 97 prisoners they employed remained on the job through the end, even with rain delays, so he didn’t have to worry about finding new workers each day.
“This was definitely not a permanent solution, but for our predicament, it worked well,” he said. “For what we needed and the weather that was forecast, it worked.”