Labor uncertainties mar otherwise near-ideal crop



By Vicky Boyd

Editor



Although this year’s apple crop is smaller than many previous ones, growers and packers say they’re still upbeat because of the high quality and desirable variety mix.

A small carryover of last year’s crop leading into this season also should bode well for continued strong grower prices for the fresh market, they say.

“Consumer demand is phenomenal, and storage supplies are low,” says Jim Cranney, vice president of the U.S. Apple Association in Vienna, Va. “The change in variety mix will continue with the 2007 apple crop. Export demand is healthy and stable in 2007, and there’s new technology that can improve fruit quality.”

His remarks came during the association’s annual summer outlook conference in Chicago.

Despite the smaller crop, which also should mean fewer processing apples, prices for that sector will continue to remain stagnate because of low-cost imported Chinese apple juice concentrate, he says.

“If you’re business is primarily fresh oriented, you’re probably pretty happy,” Cranney says. “If your business is primarily processing oriented, you are probably less happy.”

The one gray cloud looming on the horizon is labor availability and whether the recent ruling on no-match letters from the Social Security Administration will scare away workers, he says.

Smaller crop, but higher quality

Based on a poll of its members, USApple forecasts a crop of about 212 million 42-pound cartons. That compares to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimate of 221 million cartons.

If the 2007 estimate proves true, Cranney says the crop would be the 18th largest on record and pales by comparison to even the 2004 crop of 248 million cartons. In 2006, the USDA estimated growers would harvest about 236 million cartons.

Cranney attributes part if this year’s smaller crop to growers who faced low prices removing acreage the past few years. Since 1998, more than 95,000 acres have been pulled.

The industry currently has about 373,000 acres, although Cranney says that may start to creep up due to the attractive grower prices of the past couple years.

“It would seem reasonable that the apple industry will quickly add acreage that will result in a greater apple supply,” he says. “The wildcard is labor and whether the industry will be willing and able to expand.”

The labor wildcard

An informal survey of Western apple growers showed a tight but adequate labor supply heading into harvest. But growers say they may have to pay more for workers this year.

“The whole crew came in and did a sit-down strike and said unless we raised their pay $3 a bin, they would quit” says Dale Foreman, a Wenatchee, Wash., apple grower. “My thought is we will get it all off, but we’re going to pay a whole lot more to get it off.”

Foreman says the demands came at the beginning of apple harvest, and he had no choice but to meet their request.

Scott Smith, general manager of Smith & Nelson Inc. in Tonasket, Wash., described the labor supply at the beginning of Bartlett pear harvest in northern Washington as adequate but not surplus.

“What worries us is these guys all have cell phones,” Smith says. “If the guys down south do get desperate and [pickers] hear they’re paying more, it becomes a problem for all of us to deal with.”

The gradual shift from red delicious to other varieties, such as Gala, Braeburn and Jonagold, has put added pressure on the already tight labor supply, Carlson says.

Less than one third of Washington’s 172,986 acres of apples were planted to red delicious in 2006, according to a National Agricultural Statistics survey. Just five years ago, more than 82,000 acres were planted to red delicious.

“It takes 1 1/2 to two people to pick the same amount as the reds, so it just makes the labor problems worse,” Carlson says.

Effects of no-match letters

John Rice, a grower and vice president of Rice Fruit Co. in Gardners, Pa., says he believes he’ll have enough labor to pick this year’s crop. What concerns him is the effect no-match letters will have on workers in the future.

“When everybody begins to get their no-mach letters, I think the workforce will scatter at that point,” he says. “In our case, we will get up to the end of harvest before we will have to deal with which ones of our harvest workers don’t match up. In the long run, it’s a big problem.”

Many of Rice’s workers are employed not just during the 10-week-long harvest but year-round, performing such tasks as pruning trees or maintaining equipment.

The Social Administration was to have begun sending letters in September to employers with workers whose Social Security numbers don’t match government records. The letters are informally called mismatch or no-match letters.

But a U.S. district court judge on Aug. 30 blocked the letters until she can hear the case on Oct. 1.

If employers couldn’t rectify the discrepancies within 90 days, they would have had to terminate the workers or face fines up to $10,000 or sanctions.

In some cases, the discrepancies were caused by clerical errors or when people were married and didn’t change their names. But the vast majority is due to workers using someone else’s Social Security number.

“I have to believe that 75 percent of them are unauthorized,” Rice says. “We need those workers, and there are no workers to replace them. In Pennsylvania, there’s essentially full employment.”

He says AgJOBS, which was part of the failed immigration and reform legislation earlier this year, would have established a process whereby unauthorized workers could have gained legal work status.

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