Availability of labor will determine how quickly orchard  automation is adopted, says Denny Hayden.

Availability of labor will determine how quickly orchard automation is adopted, says Denny Hayden.

A widespread shortage of workers to harvest Washington State’s 2011 apple crop could prompt growers to look to technology to reduce their labor needs.

The labor issue is the defining issue for the industry and will determine the pace and track that automation is going to take,” said Denny Hayden, a grower in Pasco, Washington, who has been dabbling with labor-saving technologies for a decade or more.

Washington apple growers, who depend largely on migrant Mexican workers to pick their crops, faced widespread labor shortages last fall. Contentious immigration debates, talk of mandatory E-Verify, and the difficulties and dangers of crossing the U.S.-Mexican border appear to be slowing the movement of workers to the Pacific Northwest.

E-Verify is an Internet-based system run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security through which businesses can verify that their workers are eligible to work in the United States. Mandatory E-Verify could significantly shrink the workforce in tree fruits as many migrant workers are thought to be in the country illegally.

“I think a lot of people are staying low,” said Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association, who estimated that Washington apple growers could have used 3,000 to 4,000 more pickers this fall. “They’re not moving around. They’re staying where they feel more secure and comfortable.”

Tip of the iceberg

Some of Washington’s major integrated tree fruit companies are concerned that this season’s shortages might just be the tip of the iceberg.

The tree fruit industry has lobbied for many years, without success, for Congress to tackle immigration reform so that growers can have an adequate legal workforce. Mayer said this season’s shortage should provide lawmakers with concrete examples of the ramifications of not addressing the issue, but the industry needs to ­prepare itself for ongoing shortages.

Many growers have been planting pedestrian orchards with smaller trees, where more work can be done from the ground without ladders. A number of growers are using platforms for jobs such as pruning, tree training, and thinning. Some are testing mechanical string thinners with the goal of reducing the need for hand thinning. Two companies have developed ladderless harvesting systems that are ready to go into production.

Thanks to a flurry of research activity nationwide, several new labor-saving technologies are in the pipeline. Mayer said he’s been impressed by how fast technology is moving. “It used to be people would talk about things, and it would take several years before you’d see it.”

Hayden agrees that there’s been nothing said in the political realm to reassure growers that they will be able to depend on a supply of Mexican workers in the future. In fact, if Republican presidential hopefuls have their way and mandate E-Verify, close the border, make it more difficult to hire immigrants, and refuse amnesty for the workers already here, the situation could go from bad to worse. It’s impossible for the tree fruit industry to have an adequate legal workforce because the United States allows so few Mexican people to immigrate legally, he points out.

“I think specialty crops are so at risk,” Hayden said. “We’re just one political ­decision away from disaster. They’d better understand the impact it will have on specialty crops and what the economic impact will be.”

Moral dilemma

Hayden said he’s concerned also about the moral issues of splitting up families when some members might be legal immigrants and others not, and of calling Mexican immigrants freeloaders, when they are often taxpaying consumers who contribute to the economy. Immigrants pay the same taxes as other employees, with less likelihood of receiving benefits from them, he noted.

“This is such a moral dilemma that I don’t hear people talking about.”

Hayden said so far, growers have been adopting new technologies to increase efficiency, but the reasons for automating are becoming more compelling. “We’re going to do it out of absolute necessity in the future, depending on if and how and when they deal with the labor issue,” he said.

“If we have to use more of a domestic labor force, it’s going to be more important to have more automated functions and more hand-held devices—whatever it’s going to take to not be carrying a ladder through the orchard and less of a picking bag. This hard, back-breaking labor is going to have to be reduced, because we’re going to have a different labor force.”

But the industry will still need immigrant labor, he feels, because there are not enough domestic workers willing to do orchard work, even with more automation.

Guest workers

Jon Wyss, government affairs director at Gebbers Farms in Brewster, Washington, said technology will be part of the solution to the labor scarcity, but he’s not given up hope that the U.S. Congress will eventually pass immigration reform that includes a better guest-worker program than the current H-2A. Washington growers have been bringing in up to 3,000 guest-workers annually through the H-2A program but need 40,000 workers to harvest the apple crop. Even if every migrant worker who is in the country now were legalized, there would still be a shortage, Wyss pointed out.

Several guest-worker bills have been introduced, but all have flaws that need to be addressed to make them feasible, he said. He thinks the chances of immigration reform being passed by next year are remote, given that it is an election year. “Maybe three years from now,” he mused. “That third year after the election you might see it, but you’re reading tea leaves.”

Wyss said he’s encouraged by the fact that Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire and Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse went to Washington, D.C., with specialty crop industry representatives in October to convince Washington’s ­congressional representatives and various federal agencies of the importance of addressing this issue. The governor pleaded with lawmakers not to pass E-Verify alone without measures to increase the availability of workers.

“The governor is pushing very hard to help us get a solution,” Wyss said. “This is the way legislation and the political world works. You have to work on it every day and continue to go and push, and push, and push, and eventually you will get some piece of legislation that works. You can’t just roll over and throw your arms up and walk away. Every business wants a legal, reliable, stable supply of labor. We will get reform at some point in time, it’s just we have to continue to work and work at it, and we will get there.”