This is a winter of discontent for pear growers in North Central Washington, and folks in the industry are deeply concerned about the financial survival of these small family growers. The pear industry is one of the last bastions of family farms in agriculture, with small-acreage orchards dotting the landscape in the Upper Wenatchee Valley, the Entiat Valley and in the Okanogan.

The pear orchards are a defining feature of the Upper Valley, with orchards lining both sides of the valley. Imagine the impact on the quality of life here if those orchards can’t survive and they are replaced with subdivisions. We would lose both the aesthetic beauty of the orchards but more importantly the families that contribute so much to the social and cultural life of the valley.

Farmers have always been subject to the vagaries of weather, markets, crop size and pests, but this downcycle feels very different to three prominent pear growers that I spoke with recently at a meeting hosted by Ken Hemberry of Peshastin Hi-Up Growers. Joining us in the conversation were Ray Schmitten and Rudy Prey.

The industry, which has faced downturns in the past, is seeing a pattern that is without precedent and troubling. Prices over the past several years have been virtually unchanged while expenses, driven primarily by labor costs, have been climbing, which has squeezed profits to a razor-thin margin.

Normally, orchardists see higher prices when crops are short but that hasn’t been happening lately. The strong dollar has hurt the export market considerably. The loss of the Russian market because of an embargo several years ago is also a factor.

The labor costs are being driven by the federal H2A program, which allows farmers to bring in non-immigrant workers for short-term employment. It is managed by the U.S. Department of Labor, the state and Homeland Security. The labor price is set by the Washington State Department of Labor and the rate for 2019 was $15.03, which will increase to $15.83 in 2020.

The growers told me it wasn’t clear how those costs are established but the agency does survey orchardists yearly.

Pear orchardists are increasingly dependent on these workers because of a serious labor shortage driven by low unemployment rates.

The H2A wage becomes the de facto minimum wage for orchard workers and the continual increases has an escalating impact on the wages paid to other workers. “The labor is really killing growers,” said Hemberry.

Growing pears, he explained, is much more labor-intensive and is not conducive to industrial-scale farming. Pears grow best in valleys with uneven terrain, while apples can be grown and harvested on massive tracts of land.

There are perhaps 300 pear growers in Chelan County and the largest grower perhaps farms 400 acres. Getting big in the pear industry only means you’ll go broke faster, Hemberry said.

What they are seeing in the valley is that growers are increasingly eating up the equity in their orchards and are now starting to apply for loans. Given the upside-down economics of the industry at this time, getting crop loans is going to be very difficult, Schmitten said.

“We’ve spent years looking at ways we can build higher density,” said Prey, but it requires cutting down producing orchard land and would require perhaps a decade to see significant returns. And purchasing multi-million-dollar pieces of equipment to assist with mechanical harvesting is out of reach for small operations.

What distinguishes these operations is the family nature of the business and the passion they have to grow pears. At risk also are the thousands of jobs associated with the industry.

The family nature of the pear business is one that I find particularly compelling. This is unlike most other agriculture and it would behoove us to find a way support the industry. When Hemberry says, “I don’t know how we’re going to continue to stay in business,” that’s a major warning sign.

To their credit, Schmitten, Prey and Hemberry acknowledged that the growers to work together more effectively and market their fruit with more creativity. They also see an opportunity to build bridges with organizations like the Friends of Leavenworth to develop greater understanding and collaboration.

But the biggest driver is labor costs and the three of them agreed that finding a way to get the H2A rates to a level that growers can continue to survive.

Chelan County Commissioner Bob Bugert is working with growers to find solutions. So is 12th District Rep. Keith Goehner, who is a grower and says he’s working to educate lawmakers about the unique aspects of the industry. The problem has many facets and will take a coordinated response from local, state, and federal officials to be effective. Regardless, the community’s support for these family farms is essential, if we want this rich heritage to continue.

Growers are supplementing their income with outside jobs, but unless there is an economic future in pear orchards, the face of the Upper Valley will be changed, and it will diminish our valley and our heritage.

Rufus Woods is the publisher emeritus of The Wenatchee World. He may be reached at rwoods@wenatcheeworld.com or 509-665-1162.