Eastern Washington State is the world’s fastest-growing region for blueberry production.

Eastern Washington State is the world’s fastest-growing region for blueberry production.

Tree fruit growers anxious about the labor market in the coming season would be wise to pay attention to asparagus and blueberry trends. Asparagus, the first crop of the season with significant labor demands, may serve as a bellwether for labor availability in 2012. Blueberries, which begin harvest near cherries, will compete from the same pool of workers, says a spokesperson for Washington State’s blueberry and asparagus producers.

“Asparagus is the first potential crop for a labor crunch to show up,” said Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission. “If there’s a tight labor market for asparagus this spring, apple growers should be concerned.”

In the last seven years, asparagus production in Washington State has dropped precipitously, from 59 million pounds of production in 2004 to around 17 million in 2011. Though demand for asparagus is high, especially in Washington’s market window, Schreiber says that Washington growers have not planted more acreage because of worries about labor availability and costs.

About 70 percent of the cost of asparagus production is associated with labor, he said, adding that the crop has the highest percentage of costs associated with labor in the state. And with Washington’s minimum wage linked to the consumer price index, Schreiber said labor costs rise each year. The minimum wage for 2012 is $9.04 per hour.

Schreiber calls the asparagus industry the “canary in the coal mine” and fears that other crops heavily dependent on hand labor could follow suit. “The decline of asparagus is a cautionary tale,” he said.

Blueberry explosion

Schreiber, who also heads the state’s blueberry commission, said in a phone interview with the Good Fruit Grower that cherry growers unaware of the latest ­blueberry industry trends could be surprised at growing competition for their labor pool.

Traditionally, blueberries, grown in western Washington, have not been on the radar screen of cherry growers. But as blueberries have taken command in grocery store produce sections in the last six years, acreage in western states, including eastern Washington, has exploded.

Six years ago, few blueberries were grown in eastern Washington, Schreiber said. Washington blueberry production has more than tripled in the last six years, from 18.4 million pounds in 2006 to 59.4 million pounds last year.

Even more stunning is the projected growth of blueberry production in the state. Some 11,000 acres are currently planted in Washington, according to Schreiber, with about one-third of the acreage nonbearing or in early production years. Blueberry bushes reach full production in their fourth year. Of the state acreage total, 3,500 acres are planted in eastern Washington. Based on current plantings, Schreiber predicts statewide production will hit 90 million pounds by 2015, a forecast that means the industry will have increased production by 10 million pounds each year since 2010.

“Eastern Washington is the fastest growing region of blueberry production in the world right now,” he said, adding that cherry growers should take note. Blueberry harvest in eastern Washington begins about the third week of June, within a week or so after cherry harvest starts in the state’s early Pasco district.

Fresh or processed?

Blueberries can be grown for fresh market or for processing. Fresh-market blueberries require hand labor for picking, and berries are picked multiple times. Mechanical harvesters usually pick those grown for processing. Blueberry pickers are generally paid piece rate.

“Growers in eastern Washington can go either way—fresh or processed. It depends on labor availability and the market,” he said. Labor was a limiting factor last year and caused some fresh-market growers to switch to processing. “Washington blueberry growers didn’t have enough hand labor to pick all of the blueberries fresh that they wanted to last year.”

Processing prices in the coming year are thought to be headed downward, he said, which will put more pressure on the desire to pick for the fresh market.

“Cherries used to be the curse of asparagus growers who would often lose their crews to the more desirable cherry harvest,” Schreiber said, adding that the relationship between blueberries and cherries will be similar. “No doubt, blueberries will put increased demand on the cherry labor pool.”