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Originally published Sunday, October 30, 2011 at 9:03 PM

Washington apple growers scrambling to find workers

From Wenatchee to Wapato, in orchards up the Okanogan Valley and across the Yakima Valley, growers are hurrying to find workers to harvest their apples before the first cold snap freezes them where they hang.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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OTHELLO, Adams County — One after another, at a recent emergency meeting in Wenatchee called by the Governor's Office, fruit growers talked about how hard it's been to find workers as the harvest hits its sweet spot.

One orchardist recalled how, of the 149 people referred to him earlier in the season by the state's unemployment office, half showed up on the first day, a quarter on the second day.

Now, only five remain.

And so it went around the room, until a representative from the state Department of Corrections proposed an unexpected solution: prison labor.

"Do they come with guards?" one grower asked.

While putting inmates to work in the fruit orchards of Eastern Washington proved too costly and too late to help growers this year, that it was even considered and studied shows the lengths to which growers and state officials will go to address the labor problems in one of Washington's most vital industries.

Apples alone are a $1.5 billion-a-year business in the state.

And two weeks ago Gov. Chris Gregoire amped up what now has become an almost annual harvest-time refrain by growers when she declared the state's farm-labor shortage a crisis.

Growers mostly blame rising tensions around illegal immigration that have spooked migrant farmworkers, the majority of whom are here illegally, while worker advocates say there'd be no shortage if growers were willing to pay workers more.

"Truth be told, we've always had a labor shortage in this state; 75 percent of these workers aren't authorized to be here," said Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association.

Small growers hit hard

From Wenatchee to Wapato, in orchards up the Okanogan Valley and across the Yakima Valley, apple trees hang heavy with still-ripening fruit. At the entrances of a few farms across the region are variations of a sign: "Necesitos Piscadores" — pickers wanted.

But just how deep or widespread the labor problem runs is difficult to discern. Some orchards are done picking for the year, and a website for WorkSource, the state unemployment agency, regularly shows an "adequate supply of labor" in most parts of the state.

Hardest hit are small, independent growers who don't need workers year-round but require a few dozen at different times of the season.

This year, cooler weather has delayed the harvest by at least two weeks. And as winter looms, growers are scrambling to get precious Fuji and Granny Smith apples off the trees before the first cold snap freezes them where they hang.

The trouble is, some of the workers needed for this crucial push have already left the region — migrant workers, mostly Latinos, who each year follow the harvest north from Mexico, California and Texas through Oregon and into Washington.

Many didn't show up at all this year — in part because of the late harvest elsewhere.

What's more, drug cartels operating along the Mexico border have made it more difficult for migrants to enter the U.S., and stricter immigration enforcement is causing those already here to lie low.

"There's a more hostile environment for those using false documents — and growers are dependent on folks using false documents," said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League.

Wages are another issue. Like other employers, growers must pay workers at least the minimum wage. Some pay a per-bin or piece rate or some combination of that and an hourly rate.

Some worker advocates say a true labor shortage would push wages up in a sustained way, something they've not seen.

The piece rate growers were paying for jobs they listed with the state this past September was 3.5 percent less than they were paying the previous September.

The state doesn't yet have wage figures for October, when higher demand for labor would have driven wages up. Growers say they were paying an average of $25 per bin or more — up from $20 a year ago. A fast, experienced worker can pick about 10 bins a day.

Still, wages aside, fruit harvesting is hard and physical, what some growers call "young man's work."

"You are humping it up and down a ladder, with 20, 35 pounds strapped to your back," Gempler said. "A greenhorn at the end of the day will be very sore."

And while one grower has hired a small number of refugees, mostly Burmese and Bhutanese, to work the fruit orchards, the reality, said Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Washington Growers Clearinghouse, is that even in a devastated economy, "Americans do not want to do those jobs."

"We are not talking about going out to the apple tree to pick some apples for an apple pie," he said. "This is very hard work."

Forrest Shertzer was undaunted. The 42-year-old folded up his Seattle-area home-remodeling company for lack of business two years ago and has been out of work since.

When he called WorkSource recently to ask about farm work in Eastern Washington, he said, he was told not to bother if he didn't have 20 years' experience. He went anyway — landing a job picking apples at an orchard in Quincy, Grant County.

"I spent the last money I had, pawned my guitar and tools to get out here," Shertzer said. And while he plans to stay until the work is done, he's not likely to do it again.

It's "the hardest work I've ever done," he said.

Chunk of state economy

The farm-labor shortage hitting this region is also being felt in other parts of the country — though for different reasons.

In recent months, strong anti-illegal-immigration laws in states like Alabama and Georgia led some Latinos — legal and illegal — to flee, leaving potatoes and cucumbers to rot in the fields.

In Washington, agriculture — an industry almost entirely dependent on immigrant labor — contributed $7.9 billion to the economy last year.

Beginning in the late 1990s, many farmworkers began leaving the fruit orchards in search of better-paying jobs, primarily in construction, west of the mountains.

More recently, as the economy soured and many of those jobs dried up, some returned, joined by thousands of foreigners being brought to the United States in small but increasing numbers under a federal guest-worker program.

But the program is cumbersome and restrictive — especially for small growers.

Jon Warling, a farm-labor contractor in Othello, Adams County, stopped using it for that very reason.

Last year, in addition to his regular crew, he began hiring refugees living in the Seattle and Spokane areas — people brought to this country from troubled parts of the world.

Warling started the season with 54, mostly Burmese and Bhutanese already familiar with farm labor. Early last week, he was down to 23, many of the others having moved on after finding other jobs.

Vita Selemani is among the workers on the crew, his slim frame shinnying up and down the orchard ladder as if he'd been doing it all his life.

A refugee from Congo, Selemani has been in the U.S. eight months with his wife and five children and had been looking for work. Back in Congo, he had fished and farmed and worked construction, he said. To him, picking apples is good, easy work.

No easy pickings

Fazio, of the farm-labor association, said a common question lawmakers ask when they visit fruit orchards is whether non-Hispanics ever apply for the jobs.

A popular story they hear in response is about the "two crazy Canadians" who drove to Brewster, Okanogan County, not far from the Canadian border, looking for field work.

"They picked three bins the first day ... one bin the second and said 'we're outta here!' after that."

A laid-off construction worker from Tacoma, Tim Shadle, may have been a little more prepared when he and his two sons set out for Othello two weeks ago to pick apples on one of Warling's crews.

As a teen 40 years ago, he had spent summer breaks in Wenatchee picking fruit. The three worked a few days and were getting the hang of it, he said, before leaving for a family emergency.

"I hurt a little more this time than I used to," said Shadle, now 54.

His sons, he said, would like to come back next year.

Ultimately, for the long-term survival of an industry so dependent on immigrant labor, the federal government needs to resolve the illegal-immigration problem, said Dan Newhouse, director of the state Department of Agriculture and himself a grower.

"We need to find a way to allow workers from Mexico to come and go legally," Newhouse said. "We've got too much riding on this."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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