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Originally published Saturday, October 15, 2011 at 5:00 PM

Gregoire: Wash. apple-picker shortage growing dire

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire says the shortage of apple pickers in the nation's top apple-producing state is dire.

The Associated Press

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TACOMA, Wash. —

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire says the shortage of apple pickers in the nation's top apple-producing state is dire.

In the Wenatchee Valley, apple growers have posted help-wanted signs across the countryside. For the first time in years, growers have also launched a radio campaign, offering up to $150 dollars per day.

"We're not getting anybody to take a bite on these jobs, so we don't have anybody to do these jobs," Gregoire told The News Tribune ( http://bit.ly/qZIUvq).

The governor returned home Friday after leading a 15-member delegation of farm group representatives to the nation's capital. They urged members of Congress to oppose a Republican bill that would force employers to use a federal database called E-Verify to determine whether their employees are eligible to work in the United States.

Gregoire criticized anti-illegal-immigration rhetoric prevalent in Washington, D.C., saying Congress should instead be focused on ways to get more foreign workers to help with harvesting.

Washington isn't the only state in such straits. In Alabama, where a new state law is aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants, the construction, agriculture and poultry industries all report huge shortages of labor. A University of Georgia study this year found that state had a shortage of 5,244 workers in the fields. In California, farmers have complained of too few workers to pick the avocados, and in Texas, growers have appealed with little luck for more help picking their organic crops and vegetables.

In Washington state, the governor and farm groups want nothing to do with E-Verify. Roughly 66,000 of the 92,000 workers who are needed for seasonal harvests - nearly 72 percent - are in the country illegally, according to the state's farm groups.

"All we're going to do is penalize employers. We're going to lose jobs and we don't have any way to get those jobs back," she said in an interview at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, where she and her entourage had met earlier with the office's chief agricultural negotiator. "Now why - in this recession, as hard-hit as we are - would we, the state of Washington, support that?"

Jon Wyss, president of the Okanogan County Farm Bureau, called the potential results of the bill catastrophic. He represents more than 900 farm families in the county, and said growers were facing a bleak harvest this year. He read an e-mail that he'd just received from one of them, who complained about a harvest that was two weeks behind schedule because the farmer was 200 pickers short and it had rained on four of the past seven days. Wyss said all of his growers were struggling to find labor this fall.

"You can't drive down a road in the Wenatchee Valley, between Cashmere to the Canadian border, without seeing a sign that says, `Pickers wanted,'" he said.

Wyss said Congress should streamline the procedures to allow more foreign workers to be hired as farm laborers. He called the current process complex and cumbersome.

Gregoire travels on Monday to China, where she'll lead another trade mission.

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Information from: The News Tribune, http://www.thenewstribune.com

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