Fruit growers need to collaborate with each other to address labor shortages, suggests Kirk Mayer, manager of Washington Growers Clearing House Association.

For a number of years, orchardists have seen the value of sharing crews with their neighbors, so the workers don’t leave the area when a grower has some down time.

But Mayer said the next step might be to team up with growers in other regions, such as California and Oregon, to employ workers and move them north as needed from the very earliest districts to the latest, rather than just wait for workers to show up.

Growers have already diversified by variety and elevation in an attempt to spread out their labor needs and reduce the number of workers they need at peak season.

Geographic diversification—something that major producers are already working towards—further spreads the risks of crop damage and makes it possible to hire workers for a longer period of time.

Labor costs

Mayer said wages have increased as a result of a tight labor supply, but offering more money just leads to bidding wars between growers and increases costs. Ten years ago, labor accounted for about 40 percent of a grower’s total production costs; now, labor is between 55 and 60 percent of total costs, he estimates. "It’s gone up considerably and it does squeeze the grower, because he’s not able to just add it on to the price of his fruit."

Housing can be an attraction to workers, and while it’s difficult to house an entire crew, more growers are trying to provide housing for a core group of employees, Mayer said.

Over the past few years, workers have become more selective about where they work. They carry cell phones and can easily alert their friends to where the best picking opportunities are.

"They’ve always looked at crop load to determine where they wanted to work," Mayer said. But now they’re considering a whole host of factors such as the size of the trees, height of ladders, height of the ground cover, topography of the orchard, how the trees were pruned, fruit variety, wage rate, remoteness of the orchard, availability of housing, and even their initial impression of the employer or supervisor when being interviewed for the job.

Suddenly left

Mayer said he’s heard of cases where half of a grower’s crew of 40 or so workers suddenly left to go to another orchard where they perceived the work was better. They returned later to collect their pay.

Sometimes, groups of workers looking for work might not want to split up and a small grower might not have enough jobs for all of them, he said.

"There have been situations where growers needed three or four people to top off their crew and they have a group of ten show up and they don’t have enough ladders maybe to put those ten to work, and they would not be able to keep them busy."

Mechanical aids, such as platforms, might attract workers, and could increase the potential labor pool because working from platforms may be less physically demanding than working from ladders. However, not all growers can use platforms because they might not be suited to the topography of the orchard or the shape of the trees, and they’re expensive.

Mayer expects to see more mechanical aids incorporated into the workplace in the future, particularly in the larger operations. Smaller and midsized growers might be able to share such equipment and move it from orchard to orchard.

As more of the bigger operations use mechanical aids, it should free up more workers to do hand work on the smaller operations, until they’re able to adapt to the new technology, Mayer said. "I think we’re headed in that direction. We have no choice."

Whether there will be a serious labor shortage in Washington this year will depend on the volume and timing of the crops in the various regions.

Last season, there probably would have been fewer workers in Washington if California had not had major crop damage that resulted in more migrant farmworkers moving north in search of jobs. The situation in Washington was also eased by growing conditions that resulted in an extended harvest window, giving growers more time to pick their crops with fewer workers. There were some spot labor shortages, which were attributed to news reports of weather damage that prompted workers to stay away from those areas, Mayer said.

This year, the California cherry crop is expected to be close to normal, and California growers will have a greater demand for labor than last year. Washington growers reported cold damage to cherries this spring and poor pollinating conditions for apples. In cherry orchards, trees bloomed at about the same time in the northern and southern districts of the state, which suggests the harvest might be compressed and the need for workers greater.

More Washington employers will recruit workers through the H-2A foreign guest-worker program this year, but Mayer said it is expensive and time consuming, and involves a lot of red tape.

He said it is not advisable for small growers to try to use it themselves and recommends they work through an organization or consultant with experience using the program, such as the Washington Growers League or Mollie Hollibough of Yakima.

"There are a lot of regulatory requirements, and you just about need to have some sort of legal background to really dot the i’s and cross the t’s when you’re going through this process," he said.

Nationally, a number of H-2A users have ended up in court because they didn’t fully understand the rules and violated them, he warned. "There are entities out there that don’t want the H-2A program to work, and they will scrutinize your program, so there’s a significant liability issue."

He suggested that growers make joint H-2A applications with other growers who can use the same guest workers at different times.

"You have to start thinking outside the box," he said.