This fall, Washington State’s apple and pear crops came in short. Spot labor shortages were reported throughout the season and throughout the state, but at the end of the day we can say that we made it…this year. The toughest time/task crunch across the industry came during pear and apple thinning time. Comp–e–ti–tion for labor between cherry harvest and –thinning was an issue.

How did we manage? The number-one reason is smaller crops. Number-two reason: growers were pro–active and creative with recruitment and retention. Number three: the influx of H-2A certified workers. Smaller crops reduced demand. Proactive and creative actions resulted in less turnover and greater retention across the season. The number of H-2A requests and number of people certified and confirmed in 2007 was almost double that in 2006.

So, what will happen when we have a bumper crop of apples? How will we manage when all the new cherry acreage comes into full production? How will we meet labor demands if we continue to expand pear acreage? Any one of these scenarios on its own is cause for concern in terms of labor supply and demand. If (or when) they all come to fruition in a given year, and we are not better equipped than we are today, we will come up short. Are we well positioned for the future? Many would say we are not. Most would say "We got by this year."

The USA Today newspaper ran an article on our industry’s adoption of platforms. The article was factual and painted a realistic view of our collective labor –challenges. What was revealing were the comments posted by readers. Besides the requisite comments about working conditions, seasonality, wages, and –buying local, there were quite a few that asked this question. "How can they complain about labor shortages and expand acreage at the same time?" In fact, I get the same question from visitors and local growers when we drive by or discuss a new apple or cherry block—whether it be a replant or on new ground. People within and outside our industry are watching and asking, "What do they know that I don’t?" Or even, "What were they thinking?"

Moving forward

I cannot speculate on what "they" were thinking. I can say that we need to keep moving forward and that means creating new markets and responding to the –current market. If we deliver consumer delight, the –market says that consumers will buy large sweet cherries, the market says that there is demand for new apple varieties, the market says that there is room on the shelf for new fruit products, and again, if we deliver the consumer a consistently great eating experience, they will pull pears through the supply chain.

So, what are our options in meeting our labor challenges? Let’s first agree on one assumption: there is a limit to human productivity and efficiency. I have seen that limit on several operations in Washington, where nothing (not pay, not management, not tree shape, location of fruit in the canopy) could make them more efficient or productive. They were thinning, pruning, and picking at their personal best.

We know our goal. We have identified our challenge. What are the solutions? As with most scenarios, there are short-, medium-, and long-term solutions. There are those that work for some and not for others. We must keep the solutions/options menu current, robust, diverse, and real. One-size-fits-all will not meet our collective needs, and only addressing short-term needs, or only long-term needs, is not sufficient or smart. Finding a combination of solutions for the near term is your best bet. Investing for the long term is essential.

This year’s Washington State Horticultural Association annual meeting offers many opportunities to learn more about the above solutions to your individual and our collective challenge, such as:

Guest-worker programs: H-2A has worked for some but not for others. We need a well-designed, user-friendly, and socially responsible program that meets our needs and the expectations of our citizenry. It needs to be tailored to high-value specialty crops and should minimize potential negative impacts on the local "free market" labor system.

Risk management: Managing risks is different than taking risks. Being dependent on high numbers of skilled people to culture and harvest your crop puts labor into the risk category. Recognize that labor risks must be managed.

Engineering solutions: Together, we should tap every sector of science and industry to bring technologies to our orchards for evaluation and potential adaptation and adoption. Technologies that will fit a wide range of orchard systems and crop species will better position us for meeting our collective labor challenges.

Plant material/genetics and genomics: The best way to predict the future is to create it. Washington State –University and the Washington tree fruit industry are leading the way. It is sometimes difficult to imagine or even understand the potential, but it is there, and it is real time.

Engage with your industry, and when you hear someone say "harvest went smoothly" or "thinning was tight, but we got it done," stop and ask them how they did it. Many, if not most industries, are struggling with the same issues we are. Some are ahead, some behind. We are not the first, nor will we be the last. Let’s actively seek solutions by example, and let’s join together with like industries and move the needle.