Grower of the Year Craig O’Brien has two main concerns as he considers the future of the tree fruit industry. In the short term, he’s concerned about Washington’s rapidly increasing apple production, but he expects that the laws of supply and demand will result in an adjustment. In the longer term, he worries about being able to attract enough workers to pick his fruit.
He’s hoping that his high-density, high-yielding orchard, where much of the fruit is accessible from the ground, will attract the skilled pickers they need. In his new plantings, the trees will be slightly shorter than before, at 9-1/2 feet.
“It will not totally remove the ladder from the orchard, but it will be a step towards the pedestrian orchard,” Craig said. “I’m not sure we can move to a complete pedestrian orchard and at the same time maintain the per-acre yields that we would like to have.”
They use platforms for thinning, pruning, and tree training, but not for harvest.
Picking-aid platforms are available, but Craig said it would require a large investment as he would need multiple platforms. However, as the labor supply becomes tighter, that might have to be considered.
|– Collaborative approach
– Change is guaranteed
– Who will pick the fruit?
“We’ve been blessed with a workforce that’s hard working and motivated, but that supply of workers appears to be shrinking,” he said. “Meanwhile, our industry is expanding.”
Craig said many of the formerly migrant workers from Mexico are now living in the Yakima Valley year round.
“I see their children and they’re as American as my children,” he said. “They speak English and love the Seahawks. I can tell you right now, they’re not going to pick my apples. They’re going to go on to bigger and better things.
“Who’s going to pick my apples is the big question. I don’t know the solution. Meanwhile I need to grow as much fruit per acre of the highest quality I can. We try to be in the top of the pool if we can be.”