We asked a number of growers across the nation to name the biggest challenge they face in the coming year and offer their solutions. Not surprisingly, labor is a concern, but it wasn’t the only issue.
Here are the responses we heard…..
Lyndonville, New York
A viable labor supply
Darrel Oakes expects that continued access to a viable labor supply will be his greatest challenge in the coming year. He is concerned that a number of people who have worked for him at LynOaken Farms for many years are aging and won’t be able to do the hard physical work for much longer. He’s wondering how he will replace those workers.
This year, Oakes used the H-2A program to ensure that he had enough apple pickers and said it worked out well. However, he fears that as more and more farmers use the program, the pool of available workers will shrink. Also, completing all the paperwork and negotiating the bureaucracy can be time consuming, he said.
In the coming year, he’ll continue to use the H-2A program, but will need to invest in providing more housing for the workers. "We do have housing," he said, "but our operation is growing in terms of the numbers of bushels we’re producing, so we have to invest in the labor housing if we’re going to increase the numbers of people to –harvest the crop."
Currently, he needs between 40 and 50 workers to –harvest his 200 acres of apples.
Oakes said he’s less excited than others in the industry about the prospect of mechanized harvesting tools. His orchards have tall trees planted at high densities, and though he might use mechanized platforms for operations such as pruning, he doesn’t see an advantage in mechanized harvesting aids yet.
"Anything that I’ve seen makes a person less efficient rather than more efficient," he said.
He also expects that if mechanized harvesting does become feasible, it will not be affordable for a 200-acre orchard.
The Dalles, Oregon
Labor and fruit quality
Labor is the number-one concern at Orchard View Farms in The Dalles, Oregon, said Bridget Bailey of the Bailey family cherry growing and packing business. In the coming year, they will be upgrading their housing and designing orchards for harvest efficiency.
A close second to the number-one challenge is fruit quality, she said. Orchard View will continue to research how to deliver a high-quality cherry to the consumer. One of the specific areas of fruit quality they will be looking at is pitting of cherries. "We don’t know why cherries pit, although it may be a problem with late-season varieties," she noted.
As industry shifts to produce more cherries in the late-season window, pitting has potential to affect a greater percentage of cherries, she said, adding that pitting becomes a hardship to growers when they receive price adjustments for their fruit.
Orchard View Farms participated in a joint research project on pitting with Diamond Fruit, Underwood Fruit, and Oregon State University’s Mid Columbia Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Hood River last year.
"If we can come up with answers, that will help the whole industry," Bailey said, noting that they will share information to help the cherry industry improve overall quality.
The number-one challenge is labor, labor, labor, Tedd Wildman said, adding that the solution is a workable H-2A guest-worker program. Wildman grows a variety of wine grapes on about 450 acres on the Wahluke Slope near Mattawa.
"I’ve gotten through this year okay, but I’m feeling everybody’s pain," he said. "My situation is a little different than many growers because my vineyard is in Mattawa, an area that tends to have a more reliable labor supply than most regions."
Wildman noted that he relies more on crews comprised of women and has found them to be very dependable. Most vineyard work, done without ladders, is less physically demanding than tree fruit harvest, and the tasks tend to be more detail oriented.
"I’ve found that ladies tend to be more suited to –vineyard tasks than men," he said.
Traverse City, Michigan
"One of the most painful things I face is gaining a foot and then losing a yard, which I think all has to do with our tax policy," said Josh Wunsch, who has shifted some of his processed tart cherry and apple crops to fresh-market varieties like black Balaton cherries and Honeycrisp apples. Wunsch Farms recently added a small packing line for the Honeycrisp, with plans to expand the line to pack fruit for neighboring growers. As a small business owner, he feels penalized for making a capital investment and upgrading his business.
After paying off debt, Wunsch said he is now doing well enough financially to reinvest in his business with the new packing line. "Then the tax man comes and smashes the bazookies out of me," he said.
Wunsch said the solution is a favorable tax policy that recognizes efforts to reinvest, reinvent, and establish a business that will be a reliable tax revenue venture for the future. "I don’t mind paying taxes, because that means I’m profitable. But this kind of thing grinds slowly at an operation and bleeds the sweat equity that’s been accumulated. It’s very discouraging for people who want to continue."
He favors a return to something similar to the investment tax credit policy of the 1970s that was part of federal tax law that encouraged capital acquisitions and upgrades.
Michael Sarabian, who farms about 1,500 acres of stone fruit, grapes, vegetables, and nut crops with his family at Sarabian Farms, said he believes that the ability to operate his farm profitably is the greatest challenge facing the industry.
"This is especially true with tree fruit because it is so labor intensive," he said. "Given California’s recent minimum wage increase, and the pending additional increase in January 2008, one has to consider very carefully every cent that is spent in order to place the farming enterprise in a position to make money. Coupled with excessive labor costs are increased fuel costs, utility cost increases, and excessive governmental regulations, which all put tremendous stress on profitability," he said. "In the end, labor issues, water issues, pesticide issues, and such, all end up in the same place—your wallet!"
Sarabian added that growers need to figure out a way to keep what little they have left before it’s all gone.
Blair Losvar, who has a 200-acre orchard near the Canadian border, had only a third of the crew that he needed during pear harvest. "An associate of mine lent me 25 people for a week, or I would have been in a world of hurt," he said.
Losvar said his location puts him at a disadvantage in attracting workers. "I’m out here on the edge of the world and they literally have to drive by every orchard in the state to get to where I am. They can stop at any one of those orchards and get a job."
It’s become tougher to find workers in the last couple of years. This season, he was able to harvest his Gala, and most of his other varieties are young blocks that don’t have much production. His apples are new varieties that need to be color picked, work that is harder than when apples are harvested in one pick.
Losvar said most growers have been able to get their crops harvested, but not necessarily in a timely fashion. With the prospect of continuing shortages and uncertainty about what actions the U.S. Congress might take, Losvar is contemplating hiring guest workers through the H-2A program next year. He has talked to others that have used it—mainly larger operations—who say one of the challenges at first is making sure the guest workers meet expectations in terms of the work they do, but it can be successful.