(Sept. 22, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) YAKIMA, Wash. — This summer, Washington found enough workers to pick its cherry crop, which bodes well for the fall apple crop, grower-shippers said.

That’s no guarantee for next year and beyond, however, given the lack of progress for immigration reform in the U.S. Congress, said Keith Mathews, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association.

“We’ve escaped this year with a work force that will probably be sufficient, but I don’t have confidence that we’ll get that (immigration reform) accomplished any time soon,” he said.

Mathews is working with a coalition of other industry organizations on a review of how farm worker wages are set.

Currently, wages in Washington are set based on surveys that poll less than 5% of employers and thus are unrepresentative, he said. As a result, some farm workers in the state can be paid as much as $250 per day, he said.

The long-term prospects for labor make growers think twice when planning expansions, said Randy Steensma, marketing manager for Honeycrisp Apple Growers & Marketing Co., Wenatchee.

“How prudent is it to plant another 100 acres, when the labor situation is tenuous at best?” Steensma said.

The mortgage crunch and its subsequent effect on construction has had unintended good consequences for the Washington apple industry’s labor situation, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director of Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee.

“Labor was really a problem two years ago when building was at its peak, but the building trades are down now,” he said.

Washington apple grower-shippers could see some competition for workers this season from hops growers, said Suzanne Wolter, marketing director for Selah-based Rainier Fruit Co.

About 60% of the world’s hops come from Washington, and growers are expecting a big crop this year, Wolter said.

Earlier in the year, Brian Focht, general manager of Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, Wenatchee, was worried about this year’s labor situation.

At least for now, he said, those worries have abated.

“We were a little concerned prior to cherry season, but we had no problems, and I don’t foresee problems,” he said.

Of course, there’s a big difference between having enough workers and having enough workers at the right time, Focht said.

“The key is picking the crop when it’s in good condition,” he said. “The question is not whether it’s going to get picked. It’s whether it’s going to get picked at the right time.”

Steensma agreed.

“We have a three- or four-day window (to harvest apples at their peak),” he said. “If you want to market all year, you can’t have 100 million boxes of average fruit.”