The best way to attract and retain workers is to have an orchard people want to work in, and that means orchardists need to grow fruit that is easy for workers to pick and allows them to maximize their earnings.
That was the agreement among a panel of growers during the Washington State Tree Fruit Association’s meeting in December.
“You’ve got to grow big red apples,” said Dan Plath, orchard manager at Washington Fruit and Produce Company in Yakima, Washington. “Coincidentally, that’s the thing that’s going to make you the most on the revenue side and harvest efficiency.
“For most varieties, we target size 80,” he added. “If you grow 80s, you’re going to have people who want to come pick them. If you miss your target by two or three box sizes it’s going to take more apples to fill the bin, and, no matter what you pay, people don’t want to do that.”
Mike Robinson, a grower and general manager of Double Diamond Fruit Co. in Quincy, Washington, said if a variety can be harvested in one or two passes rather than three or more, the grower will have more luck finding workers.
So the orchard must be kept updated with new, highly colored strains and modern training systems.
Al Robison, who farms 115 acres of apples, pears and cherries in Chelan, Washington, said workers are informed about what they can pick in any given block. How much money they can make is important, which is why simple, vertical orchard systems are an asset in obtaining labor.
Plath agreed. “When you show someone an 8-foot ladder, they’re more likely to come to work for you than if you show them a 10-foot ladder.”
Robinson said, given a choice between fighting through big thick trees to pick the fruit or working on a fruiting wall system, pickers are going to go where they can be the most productive. “It doesn’t matter how nice I am or how nice my foreman is, if they can pick more bins.”
Crop load management
Precision crop load management is an important tool for maximizing harvest efficiency, Robinson said, though it can be difficult to get employees to count buds properly and collect the data.
“What I really need to know is how many buds are there, and I need to think about the distribution of those buds in the tree,” he said. “Trees that have been pruned carefully and have fruit that’s spaced out and is size 80 are a lot easier to pick, and the pickers make more money.”
Plath said precision crop management has had more impact than anything else on the profitability of Washington Fruit’s farms in the past five years.
It is easy to do on small trees planted at a density of 1,000 to 1,500 trees per acre, where each tree has, say, 150 apples.
It’s been harder in old Red and Golden Delicious blocks where workers might be counting 1,000 to 1,200 buds per tree but, even there, it has made it easier to attain consistent high yields and larger fruit.
Washington Fruit has a number of mechanical orchard platforms that it uses for pruning, thinning and tree training, and continues to buy more each year because of increased labor efficiency.
The company also has one platform that can be used to harvest fruit, Plath said, but he hasn’t seen enough of a gain in efficiency to justify buying more. However, others in the industry are buying platforms and making them work.
Robison said, being a small grower, he’s not an early adopter and is waiting for others in the industry to perfect mechanization first.
Robinson said he’s sometimes made the mistake of adopting technology too quickly. He figures mechanical-assist technology can improve labor efficiency by 25 percent at most, and it doesn’t fit every situation.
“The people making it work have big acres of 2-D trees that are pretty thin and very consistent,” he said. “Those companies can get a big enough group of people that can run four or five platforms and can supervise them together and run multiple shifts. It makes sense.”
Management is the key to implementing precision crop management, he emphasized. “It takes a ton more management to really make it work well.
A lot of us have been working pretty darned thin on management people over the years. It’s common to have a 300-acre farm with one manager and 15 tractor drivers and that’s it.
Somebody’s got to be doing the counting, and somebody’s got to be doing the thinking and telling people how to use the machinery. If you don’t have the supervisors, it’s hard to do.”
Another problem is that local workers want no part of the teamwork that’s involved in working from a platform, he added.
“They don’t want the job. They say, ‘Give me a ladder and I’ll do it myself.’ It’s hard to get people enthused about working with platforms.”
H-2A guest workers are usually willing to give it a try, however, and Robison said hiring H-2A workers is likely to be part of everyone’s strategy in the future as the traditional labor force shrinks.
Plath said that last year H-2A workers made up about 30 percent of the company’s green-fruit thinning and harvesting crews.
There might have been some reluctance in the past to hire H-2A workers because of the higher wage rate and the fact that domestically recruited workers had to be paid the same rate, Plath said. Now, H-2A workers are so widely used that a grower has to pay that rate to attract workers anyway.
Robinson said he’s been hiring H-2A workers for more than 10 years. They made up 60 percent of his crew during last year’s Gala harvest, and he thinks the proportion will rise to 80 percent this year, just to be sure he has a crew where and when he needs it in order to get the crop picked.
Plath said his company hasn’t yet put H-2A workers in supervisor roles, but it has elevated them to driving tractors and spraying,
“We have them here for a longer period of time, and we get people to come back, so you can afford to make the investment to train people to do that,” he explained.
Robinson said he’s been amazed by the skill level of H-2A workers. Two who work for him have their own orchards in Mexico.
“Those guys know what they’re doing,” he said. “There’s some sharp guys — and gals.”
Plath said Washington Fruit moves H-2A crews around between its various ranches, depending on where they’re most needed.
Robinson has had shared H-2A contracts with growers at the same warehouse, allowing them to work for different growers at various times during the season.
However, he’s careful to send them as entire crews with tractor drivers and supervisors to make sure individual workers don’t run off and fail to return.
One time, he had a shared contract with a blueberry grower. The crew went to pick blueberries during his slow time in August.
They went off in a good mood but returned very upset five days later than he needed them.
Robison said shared contracts usually involve some sacrifice from both parties and growers need to be aware of the wage scales and the supervision provided by the other growers. “You could lose your folks, or they could lose theirs,” he warned.
None of the speakers saw the H-2A program as a long-term strategy, but Plath said it’s the best option for now.
“Maybe we could come up with a better plan, but I think any time we’ve invested in housing we’ve been able to pay for it that same year. It’s less expensive than not getting your crop picked or even not getting the crop picked at the right time.”
Robinson said he’s hoping the long-term solution will be totally automated harvesting technology, so he can convert his H-2A housing to homes for his permanent workforce and hire just a few people to drive the machines.
He does not think H-2A is a long-term strategy because of the changing demographics in Mexico. People are having fewer children, and there’s less financial pressure to come to the United States to work.
Asked how best to compete for the limited labor available, Robinson said that, in addition to trying to grow consistent crops and offering a consistent flow of work, he makes sure he chats regularly with the workers to find out if they have any problems or complaints and to make sure they’re being treated well.
Plath said money talks. “When we look at any job description and talk about what the market is for that job description, we don’t want to pay the 99th percentile, but we want to pay above average.”
Robison said housing is the most important factor in attracting labor, followed by money. Growers need to know what the labor market is in their area and what their neighbors are paying. Reputation is also important, along with the work environment, good communication and full-season employment. •
– by Geraldine Warner