WENATCHEE — Pickers wanted, and wanted now.
Fruit growers across North Central Washington have posted signs, run classified ads and aired radio spots to bolster the army of pickers needed to harvest this year’s near-record crops before arrival of the first frosts.
Late harvests of multiple crops have the seasonal work force stretched thin, industry insiders said Monday, and skilled orchard workers — perhaps hundreds of them — could be needed to keep prime fruit from freezing on the trees.
Even Gov. Chris Gregoire has declared the situation dire. She said ads and signs have attracted few takers and criticized anti-illegal immigration rhetoric as one factor in curtailing numbers of foreign workers to help with harvesting.
Most growers agree “that the situation is tight,” said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Washington Growers Clearinghouse in Wenatchee. “Conditions vary from orchard to orchard, but a lot of fruit still needs to be picked and, sooner or later, cold weather will be on the way.”
Trouble is, he said, “we needed those workers two to three weeks ago. “Now it’s almost too little, too late.”
Another problem: Unskilled workers who answer the call for jobs that require fast, skilled pickers. Media coverage in the Interstate 5 corridor has excited some people with the promise $100 to $150 a day picking fruit, said Kelly.
But “this is hard work that pays well if you know what you’re doing,” he said. “Many folks work for a couple of days and then quit. We not only need workers, we need workers who know what they’re doing.”
Picker shortages have become the rule more than the exception in recent years due to changing immigration laws, but shortages this year are much worse than usual statewide, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director and spokesman for Stemilt Growers, one of the nation’s largest packers of apples and pears.
“There’s not only a lack of workers but a lack of days. Cold weather is bound to come and we’ve already lost a lot of days to rain. It’s the perfect storm,” he said.
Conditions for that “storm” include:
A cool summer pushing harvest two to three weeks late, with multiple crops and varieties ready for picking at the same time. Pear harvest will wrap up this week, freeing up some workers for apple picking.
Some workers traveling to areas further south where crops are ready to pick and harvest is in full swing.
Some workers shifting back to construction and landscaping jobs as a slumping economy levels off.
Tougher immigration laws in the last three years constricting the labor force, with the effects just being felt here.
In a normal year, said Pepperl, pear harvest would be done by now, as well as many early apple varieties. A lot of Fuji apples — one of the latest ripening varieties — are picked with clippers, which slows the harvest down and requires more skill.
Pepperl said he expects harvest will still be going on a month from now in mid-November.
“We’re hoping for a moderate late fall,” he said.
And if harvest stretches into November, added Kelly, workers may start leaving because of cold weather. “You can’t blame them,” he said. “Cold makes this kind of work extra hard.”