ORONDO — When I showed up before dawn Friday at the Lucky Badger Orchards office north of Orondo, Bud Ohrazda, the 500-acre orchard’s longtime manager and part owner was standing outside in the dark waiting to meet me.
“I don’t need no reporter working for a day in my orchard,” he barked when I told him I wanted to work and gather information for a story about the statewide picker shortage.
By Rick Steigmeyer
World staff writer
ORONDO — Seven steps up a 10-foot aluminum ladder affords a great view of expansive apple orchards cascading from Brays Landing Road down to the Columbia River. It’s framed by Golden Delicious apples that hang voluptuously from the branches around me. I snap them off, apple after apple, and lower them gently into the metal and canvas bag strapped to my chest.
The painterly view of brilliant fall landscape is a peaceful distraction from the aching back, sore arms and bruised legs that cry for sympathy. As the bag fills with 30 then 40 pounds of apples, the added weight pulls on my shoulders and adds pressure to my calves that are supporting me against the rungs of the ladder.
This is what I get for being curious. I wanted to know if I could still go out and make a modest day’s pay picking apples at age 64. Moreover, as a newspaper reporter, I wondered if one of the many people now unemployed in this country could do the same while helping to alleviate a critical apple picker shortage.
Both are possible I found, but not by everyone and not without commitment and some pain.
I found a job Friday through apple industry contacts at Lucky Badger Orchards, on Brays Landing Road north of Orondo. As it turned out, Wenatchee Work Source had a request for workers from Lucky Badger’s manager, Bud Ohrazda, and had been sending available help there. Unlike most of the new hires Friday, I was experienced. I had picked apples, pears and cherries through much of the 1970s and 1980s while finishing college and working on a book about farmworkers. But it had been a good 25 years since I had picked seriously.
There’s some skill involved in picking apples. Especially Golden Delicious. Goldens are one of the most delicate apples. Grabbing them too hard can leave finger bruises that show up within minutes and greatly devalue the fruit. You have to pick them deep in the palm of your hand and snap them quickly, but gently upward in a way to keep the stem on the apple but the woody spur on the tree. It’s a technique that takes practice and even then you’re likely to bruise some apples and break off some spurs that will earn you a scolding from the foreman or farmer and maybe get you fired.
There are many kinds of apples and trees of all sizes in Washington apple orchards. Red Delicious can be picked much faster than goldens but still have to be handled like eggs. Fuji sometimes have to be cut from the tree with a hand clipper. Some trellis-grown orchards can be picked from the ground. Some large trees require a 12-foot-tall ladder that requires strength and agility to move around a tree.
At Lucky Badger, we were picking trees about 12 feet tall using a 10-foot ladder. You work the ladder around the tree, picking every apple top to bottom. When you get to the bottom of the ladder, you finish filling your bag with lower apples you can pick from the ground. The bag is basically a chute that can be opened from the bottom. You release a couple of ropes that hold the chute closed and slide your apples very gently into the bin. A bin holds about 26 very full bags of apples. If you try to pick too fast, you bruise the fruit. Too slow and you don’t make enough money.
I remembered apple picking in my early days as hard work, but also a lot of fun. We’d listen to music, jabber as we worked and take lots of breaks for treats. Friends gathered around for big lunches in the field. There would often be kids and pets in the orchard, adding to the family-friendly work. Some orchards would hire groups of retired people who would come in their RVs.
It’s still hard work, but it’s no picnic. New safety laws restrict kids, all pets and even lunch in the orchard. We had to catch a ride or walk a half mile to our cars to eat lunch. We were told we couldn’t use earphones to listen to an iPod and weren’t to talk on cell phones while working because we might not be able to hear an oncoming tractor.
Chris Colwell, 29, was hired the same morning I was and put to work in the row next to me after our nearly two hours of paperwork and safety training. Colwell drove from Spokane for an apple picking job after hearing about the need for workers on television. He has a degree in philosophy, is a trained, but still unlicensed, massage therapist, and has been teaching English in Korea. He wanted work until he returns to Korea, but found most employers didn’t want to hire short-timers. Apple picking appeared to be a perfect fit.
“People say there’s no jobs out there, but there are if you’re willing to do it,” he said, looking at his hands which were black with dirt from the ladder and fruit. “This is hard work, but I guess it will make my back stronger. I wouldn’t want to do it for a month, but two weeks should be just right.”
Colwell, who had never picked before, figured out quickly how to use the ladder. Crew boss Francisco Valdivia offered him pointers on how to pick the fruit gently without damaging the spur and to always set the ladder uphill to avoid a fall.
Colwell and I picked at a similar rate, taking about 90 minutes to fill our first bins in large fruit. We slowed down to a bin every two hours after getting moved to another section of the orchard where the apples were smaller. Colwell got nearly four bins Friday, but was sure he could pick five bins in a full day.
Daryl Jackson and Juanda Schelb were having more trouble. They only had a bin and a half between them by noon and Juanda was ready to quit. The couple had been sent out to the orchard by Work Source. From Florida, the couple had been living in their pickup truck with two dogs.
“It’s not too bad if you’re not afraid of heights,” Schelb said about the job. She decided to sit the afternoon out in the truck with the dogs.
I quit picking after three bins a little after 4 p.m. Valdivia said I shouldn’t start a fourth bin because I wouldn’t have time to finish it by 5 p.m. and didn’t plan to return the next day. I started walking back along the orchard road to my car. Ohrazda saw me and picked me up in his pickup truck.
Out of 10 new employees hired that day, he doubted more than a few would stay more than a week.
“I love what I do, but there’s times when it’s very frustrating,” he said about his trouble getting the fruit off this year. “But we pulled an extra 20 bins out today. That’s 20 bins we didn’t get yesterday.”
Apple picking by the numbers
20: Amount in dollars paid to pick a bin of Golden Delicious apples
15: Amount paid to pick a bin of Red Delicious
75: Approximate number of apples in a bag
26: Number full picking bags needed to fill a bin
120: Average daily earnings of skilled apple pickers
Source: Lucky Badger Orchards
Ohrazda relented after I told him I was an experienced apple picker who was willing to work hard, even if only for a day. I didn’t tell him that I hadn’t picked apples in about 25 years. On his cell phone while I filled out pages of paperwork required for new employees, I heard him say with gruff sarcasm, “Two have come in, one young fellow who has never picked before and an elderly gentleman who says he has experience.”
Apple growers are that desperate. Even a 64-year-old reporter gets a chance to pick. As I pulled out my reading glasses and tried to answer questions on paperwork mostly written in Spanish and sat through a half-hour of boring videos on ladder and farmworker safety required by the state Department of Labor and Industries, a half-dozen others entered the office looking for work. None had picked apples before but all wanted to give it a try. Ohrazda said they could work for a week at minimum wage. If they weren’t making minimum wage by piece-rate by then — picking about four bins of fruit a day — he’d have to let them go.
Ohrazda said he could use another 40 experienced pickers willing to work 9-hour days and picking for the next 2 or 3 weeks to get the orchard’s crop of Golden and Red Delicious apples off. Even with that, he doubted he’d be able to get the crop off before cold weather damaged a portion of the crop and made it not worth picking.
“Pickers are our most valuable asset. Without them, we might as well cut these trees down,” said Ohrazda, 73, who has worked at the orchard since the 1970s.
Ohrazda isn’t the only grower or orchard manager who finds himself in a fix this year. Stricter enforcement of immigration laws the past few years has gradually reduced the number of illegal immigrants who come up from Mexico eager to do the hard work that most U.S. citizens are not willing to do. Because harvest is nearly two weeks later than usual this year, many workers — some legal, some not — who came north for the harvest have already returned home. Growers, as a result, are facing a year when they may end up leaving millions of dollars worth of fruit on the trees unpicked, said Mary Zavala, Wenatchee Work Source administator for the Employment Security Department of Washington.
“Some workers came up from California, picked pears and then headed back before the weather got cold,” said Zavala, whose staff has been fielding dozens of calls from orchardists needing workers for the past few weeks. “We still need hundreds and hundreds of workers across the state. Growers are working against a time clock to get the crop off.”
Zavala said she’s had a good response from unemployed people who want jobs, especially since Gov. Chris Gregoire sounded an alarm about the worker shortage last week and apple growers began airing radio ads that stated apple pickers could make between $100 and $150 a day.
Growers and apple industry officials from around the state met with state Department of Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse, governor representatives and employment officials last Thursday in Wenatchee to hash out the problem.
“Growers educated the governement representatives of the need for experienced workers,” said Marcia Henkle, Work Source area director. “There were a lot of good ideas out there for next year. But we’re in the middle of the crisis now when we need to be ahead of it.”
Yes, skilled, experienced apple pickers can make good wages, she said. But this late in the season, some growers are not interested in trying to train new people to pick.
The 60 skilled workers Ohrazda has working pick an average of six bins of goldens a day. Some pick as many as eight. At $20 a bin, that’s $120 to $160 a day. An inexperienced worker who has never worked on a ladder isn’t going go to make that much, Ohrazda said.
“I’ve got one group that’s wrecking my trees and picking one bin a day. I’m going to have to let them go. I can’t afford to pay $78 a bin,” he said, referring to the minimum wage he is obligated to pay. Three other younger pickers are working hard, improving their skills and will make good pickers if they stay, he said.
“Work Source has been sending them out and I put them to work, but it takes somebody willing to work hard and it takes some skill. You have to want to do it. You have to be tenacious,” he said.
With intermittent rain slowing picking this past weekend and below freezing weather this week threatening the crop, Ohrazda said the outlook is grim. He should be harvesting at least 500 bins a day to get the crop in within two weeks. He’d like to be picking 700 or 800 bins. He’s getting about half that. Other growers expect to still be picking late apple varieties like Fuji, Granny Smith and Braeburn until Thanksgiving.
“It really is the perfect storm,” he said about the combination of picker shortages, large crops and weather conditions that have pushed harvest back and compressed the ripening timeline for all apple varieties. “We knew this was coming months ago, but there was nothing we could do about it. Even if we had the skilled pickers here earlier, they wouldn’t have stuck around because the fruit wasn’t ready to pick.”
Rick Steigmeyer: 664-7151