Jon Wyss of Gebbers Farms (center) and Steve Hull, Washington State Hort Association president (right), tell state Representative Mike Armstrong about labor shortages

Jon Wyss of Gebbers Farms (center) and Steve Hull, Washington State Hort Association president (right), tell state Representative Mike Armstrong about labor shortages

Thirteen of the 25 largest apple- and pear-producing companies in the United States are in Washington State. That’s one of the messages Jon Wyss delivered to state legislators during the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual Tree Fruit Day in the state capital of Olympia.

Wyss was among several apple and pear growers from central Washington who braved snowy mountain passes to make sure legislators on the other side of the state don’t overlook the state’s billion-dollar tree fruit industry, and understand the impacts of their decisions. They took with them gift boxes containing fresh apples, pears, and fruit products for legislators and their assistants. Value of the gift? Well under $25 in monetary terms, though growers might wish it were higher.

Wyss is in charge of government affairs at Gebbers Farms, Brewster. Gebbers ranks No. 3 on the list of top U.S. apple and pear growers published by American Fruit Grower magazine, behind Evans Fruit Farm of Yakima and Stemilt Management, Wenatchee.

Gebbers has 780 acres of cherries along with just under 6,000 acres of apples and pears, and is one of very few tree fruit companies to dedicate a staff person to legislative issues.

Bush campaigns

Wyss, whose wife, Melanie, is granddaughter of the business’s founder Danny Gebbers, has impeccable credentials for the job. He grew up in Wyoming and went to college in Texas. He has worked on George Bush’s gubernatorial and presidential election campaigns and has been active in the Republican Party in eastern Washington.

He served as a Washington State senator for three days last year when Senator Brad Benson of Spokane, a major with the Air National Guard, was called to duty just before the end of the legislative session and asked Wyss to stand in for him.

In his new role at Gebbers, where he’s worked since December, he’s now able to capitalize on being on first-name terms with most of the legislators.

Gebbers needs a thousand pickers during harvest, so the lack of labor was a topic Wyss was quick to draw attention to during the Tree Fruit Day. The big issue was whether the U.S. Congress would pass legislation limiting immigration without providing a guest worker program. A large proportion of the labor force for tree fruits is suspected to have fraudulent documentation. Wyss said it’s been estimated that 493,000 jobs in all sectors in Washington would be lost if the border were secured, which would have a serious impact on the state’s economy.

Although this is a national issue, growers complained that the Washington State Department of Employment Security does not always acknowledge a shortage of workers—something that must be proven before employers are permitted to use the existing federal H-2A temporary agriculture guest worker program to bring in workers from other countries.

“They’re playing games with you,” sympathized Representative Mike Armstrong of Wenatchee. “That’s frustrating.”

Water storage

The visiting growers received a sympathetic ear also on the topic of creating more water storage. The entire state felt the effects of last year’s drought.

Steve Hull, Hort Association president, told Ecology Director Jay Manning how the lack of irrigation water affected the size and quality of pears in the Yakima Valley and how some growers had to sacrifice some of their orchard in order to water the rest.

“I think the solution is more storage,” Hull said. Though a proponent of the proposed Black Rock reservoir, an ambitious project that would supply water to the Yakima Valley, he said it would be wise for the state to consider smaller projects in the meantime.

Manning said that, with a cost of perhaps 2 to 4 billion dollars, Black Rock will have detractors who think it’s not a good investment of state and federal funds and agreed with the need for smaller, local projects to ease the situation. The Pine Hollow reservoir project at Yakima is moving from the conceptual stage to reality, Manning said, and a significant aquifer storage project at Walla Walla is in the pipeline.

Agriculture Director Valoria Loveland told the growers that she saw a greater willingness at the capital to talk about water storage than ever before, and it’s a priority of Governor Christine Gregoire. The state hasn’t built any substantial reservoirs since the 1970s, she said, despite increasing demand for water.

Jim Koempel, a Peshastin apple and pear grower, asked legislators to appropriate $50,000 to study the idea of building a small, 500-acre-foot reservoir in Campbell Creek Canyon in the Wenatchee Valley, a major pear-growing region.

The Peshastin Irrigation District, which serves 400 acres of orchard, draws water from Peshastin Creek, and the reservoir could deliver supplemental water into the creek during the height of the summer, increasing the flow and aiding fish migration. Proponents say the proposal could benefit farmers, municipalities, recreational users, and the environment.

Representative Frank Chopp, speaker of the House, said the legislature is looking for opportunities to increase water storage and assured Koempel that the $50,000 would be allocated.

Other issues

Other issues brought to the attention of legislators and state officials included Washington’s high minimum wage; reimbursement of costs for cholinesterase testing; unemployment insurance; accountability of the Department of Labor and Industries; use of labor contractors; pesticide regulations; and the need for $800,000 for Washington State University to install, operate, and maintain Ag WeatherNet weather stations.