Many growers, particularly on the West Coast, didn’t have enough workers to pick their fruit last fall. The new year has just begun, but already fears are surfacing about not finding enough workers for the next harvest.

Good Fruit Grower asked orchardists across the country about their work force plans for the coming year.

Contingency plans

John Lott, Bear Mountain Orchard
Aspers, Pennsylvania

Grower-packer John Lott said his family-run business, which produces apples, peaches, nectarines, cherries, and pears on about 1,000 acres, had just enough labor to pick the crop. But he believes their short crop, which was off by about 20 percent, partly because of 40 inches of rain in September and an early snow in October, made a difference in their labor needs. “If it had been a normal crop, we probably would have experienced a crop loss of up to 10 percent because of a labor shortage.”

They had a contingency plan in place in case they were short of workers, but didn’t have to implement it. The plan prioritized which apple blocks would be picked first.

Lott initially thought the immigration legislation enacted in Georgia last year would have a positive effect on their labor pool because Georgia workers would relocate to neighboring states.

“But now I think it was a negative,” he said. “Migrant workers avoided Georgia and didn’t move up the coast to Pennsylvania. I don’t see as many bodies out there as I used to.”

He also noticed fewer workers in their packing house.

“I don’t see any changes occurring in the coming year that will improve the labor outlook,” Lott said, but he’s not ready yet to make major changes within their operation, like using H-2A workers, as it’s difficult for employers in Pennsylvania to become certified for the H-2A guest-worker program. But he might consider the H-2B temporary-worker ­program for packing house employees.

The Lotts provide free housing for their workers, as well as transportation into town, if needed. Lott said they’ve always had enough labor in the past and hopes that the housing will continue to attract workers. “But we will put together a contingency plan for next season just in case.”

Refugee partnership

Jim Hazen, general manager, Broetje Orchards, Prescott, Washington

Jim Hazen of Broetje Orchards reports they were short of harvest workers by the first of September. “We had a shorter crop than normal and got by with 150 to 200 fewer workers, but if the crop had been longer, especially statewide, it would have been a different story. Labor was a worry from the get go.”

Broetje Orchards is a unique tree fruit grower-packer that provides a multitude of services to its work force, including affordable rental housing, on-site childcare and elementary education, outreach to at-risk youth, and assistance for first-time homeowners. As a company, Broetje has been working the last two years to develop a plan for the future that addresses their labor needs, Hazen said.

Although they are considering the H-2A guest-worker program as a stopgap measure, he believes that even improvements to the program won’t solve agriculture’s need for seasonal workers. “Turning over our labor pool to the government bureaucracy through the H-2A program is a terrible position to put us in. It’s such a difficult program, and it shouldn’t be viewed as a viable long-term vehicle for agriculture.”

Hazen said that Broetje Orchards is investigating a partnership with World Relief, an international organization that works with refugee communities. Such refugees are already authorized to enter the United States, he explained, but typically the refugees settle in urban areas near services that help in relocation and finding work. “For us, the limiting factor is having enough housing to bring in a whole refugee community.”

No options

Rod Farrow, Lamont Fruit Farms
Albion, New York

Most apple growers in western New York are using H-2A workers from Mexico and Jamaica, reports Rod Farrow. He estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the region’s growers use H-2A workers and that local growers who don’t were two weeks behind all season long. While the H-2A program allows him to sleep at night knowing that a crew will be there in the morning, the program is a ­nightmare to work with, he said.

“The most annoying thing is that the Obama administration is completely anti-H-2A and anti-business,” he said. “This administration is making the program so ­difficult to use.”

But with no other options to ensure he has a legal work force, Farrow does not expect to make any changes in the coming year and will continue using the guest-worker program. He is a founding member of USA Farmers, an H-2A grower-led organization whose mission is to make the H-2A program affordable and workable.

Pay more

Keith Oliver, manager, Olsen Brothers Farms
Prosser, Washington

Olsen Brothers, a diversified family farm producing apples, cherries, blueberries, grapes, and hops, had enough workers in 2011, said Keith Oliver, but their commodity mix allows the company to move workers from crop to crop and offer longer terms of employment than some smaller growers. He said that they paid a retention bonus for staying through the season (50 cents per hour) as incentive to keep a steady work crew.

“I saw signs posted by smaller growers in the area advertising for workers,” he said, adding that when Olsen Brothers had a gap between crops, workers left.

Oliver is apprehensive about next year because they have additional acreage coming into production that will require more workers. “My knee-jerk reaction of what changes we might make next season will be to pay more and outcompete our neighbors.”

No changes

Mike Wittenbach, Wittenbach Orchards
Belding, Michigan

Mike Wittenbach, who farms more than 200 acres of fresh-market apples with his father, reports that last year’s labor supply in Michigan was fine, with few growers experiencing shortages. He has good retention of returning workers and only hired two new ones in 2011. “None of my neighbors were complaining about shortages, but I know of one grower in the Hart-Shelby area that was ­looking for more.”

He adds that most Michigan growers provide housing for their seasonal workers, and he has opened his housing to families as a way to attract more workers. “Some don’t allow families in their houses, but I believe it gives me a more stable work force. I have to house more people that way, but I have the same ones returning year after year.”

Wittenbach doesn’t anticipate making any ­employment changes in the coming year.

More housing

Scott McDougall, McDougall and Sons
Wenatchee, Washington

Scott McDougall plans to construct housing providing an additional 60 beds for his 2012 work force, which will bring the total bed number to 360 and allow the company to contract for another 60 H-2A workers. For harvest last year, they used 240 H-2A workers and hired 60 domestic workers.

Housing is not cheap, but McDougall said it’s necessary in order to participate in the H-2A program. He ­estimated that each bed costs about $12,000.

“The only way that a farmer can get his crop off right now is with a workable H-2A program,” he said, but added that the guest-worker program is not easy to comply with and every year brings regulatory changes. “The regulations from the Obama Administration have been the worst, especially with the adverse effect wage rate that we pay to the H-2A workers jumping by $2 an hour in one year.” (The adverse effect wage rate is determined annually by the U.S. Department of Labor and is meant to be higher than prevailing rates to discourage the hiring of foreign workers.)

While he hopes a more workable guest-worker program can be developed in the future, he sees no way to get around housing.

McDougall and Sons made national news last November when they hired prisoners for two weeks to finish ­harvest after their H-2A workers had to return home.