Apple growers fear worker shortages will dull otherwise bright crop prospects

By Vicky Boyd


Many growers, packers and shippers are optimistic that the 2006 apple crop, which is expected to be slightly smaller than last year’s, will mean continued firm prices and strong consumer demand.

As they met at the U.S. Apple Association’s recent crop outlook and marketing conference in Chicago, the issue on most attendees’ minds was labor availability and whether they’d have enough workers to pick the crop.

“During the cherries, we had adequate labor, but in the meantime, we needed workers for thinning apples and pears, and people didn’t have enough,” says Dan Kelly, assistant manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee. “Maybe they had part of a crew, but they ended up needing so many more.”

Hail storms hit various Washington orchards from the Oregon to Canadian border, and heat-induced russetting in golden delicious prompted a need for additional thinning crews, which were unavailable. Whether the labor shortage will continue or worsen increase remains unknown.

Apple quality meets expectations

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., estimates the 2006 apple crop will be 229 million 42-pound boxes. The U.S. Apple Association, based in Vienna, Va., puts the crop at 221million boxes, or about 4 percent less than the USDA.

That compares with the 2005 USDA estimate of 234 million boxes and the five-year average of 224 million boxes. Jim Cranney, US Apple vice president of industry services, says he’s hopeful about 2006 prices based on the Washington’s 2005 fresh-market crop, which turned out to be about 100 million boxes, or about 5 million larger than estimated.

“I think a lot of people would look at that and expect with the increased supply, prices would go down, but that didn’t happen this year,” he says. “Demand continued to be quite strong.

“Even with more supply, what that tells me is there are some things that are happening with the supply and demand. The market is happy with what the industry is producing. They are willing to pay somewhat higher prices in order to get that product.”

California apple grower Jeff Colombini, president of Lodi Farming in Stockton, Calif., shares Cranney’s enthusiasm.

With the California gala season in full swing in mid-August, Colombini, says extra fancy galas packed 88 fruit per 41-pound box were fetching $33 to $35.

“We’re really happy—we haven’t seen prices like these in a long time,” Colombini says.

Even cartons of 12 3-pound bags of galas, which typically garner a lower price because of the smaller fruit size, were bringing $17 apiece.

The state typically begins picking in earnest ahead of most other growing regions.

The USDA estimates California will pick about 8.4 million boxes, whereas industry leaders expect about 8 million boxes.

Washington hail, russetting create uncertainty

The USDA estimates Washington, the nation’s largest apple producer, will harvest 133 million boxes.

Industry representatives, however, say they think hail and russetting will reduce the crop to about 125 million boxes, with about 92 million of that going to the fresh market.

But they won’t venture to guess how much of the remaining 20 million to 30 million boxes will be picked for processing.

“It’s really difficult to know where the benchmarkfor this crop was to begin with,” says Lindsay Buckner, senior vice president of field services for Tree Top Inc. in Selah, Wash. “I’ve heard estimates of as much as 1 million bins of fruit that have been impacted by hail, and that’s more than 20 million boxes.”

With juice prices hovering about $30 per ton and peeler prices at about $50 per ton, many growers say they have little incentive to pick for processors.

“We can’t afford to pick for the processing market in blocks of goldens with too much russetting,” says John Graden, vice president of Dovex Fruit Co. in Kirkland, Wash. “We’ll determine whether to walk away.”

Labor remains a wildcard

Labor availability also will affect how much of the crop is picked.

As of mid-August, Colombini says he had adequate labor. But the busy time in California, when labor is in peak demand, hadn’t hit yet.

“Grapes—both table and raisin—really haven’t come into full swing yet, and that is a huge draw,” Colombini says. “We don’t know how that will impact the later [apple] varieties.”

John Rice, sales manager at Rice Fruit Co. in Gardners, Pa., says he thinks the family-owned operation will have enough labor to complete harvest. But he had talked to several other growers at the USApple meeting who weren’t as optimistic.

“The people here are business owners and business managers, and one of the things we are responsible for doing is making business decisions about what we are seeing,” Rice says. “And everybody is saying that making business decisions is incredibly difficult this year.”

He says people assume all the apples are going to get picked, but they shouldn’t.

Bob Price, owner of Price Cold Storage and Packing Co. Inc. in Yakima, Wash., compared trying to develop a state crop estimate to throwing a dart at a wall.

“We’ve had 600,000 bins damaged in the Yakima area,” he says. “What’s going to be picked or not for fresh is the big question.”

Labor also plays into the uncertainty.

“When you are short labor in cherries, that is troublesome, because cherries bring people out of the woodwork,” Price says. “We got by, but it was a bellwether.

“We’re operating under the old paradigm like we’ll get it all picked. Labor is the wild card here.”

Documenting shortages

Kelly of Washington Growers Clearing House says one of the challenges his state’s growers face is getting people outside of agriculture to understand the labor situation.

During 2005, for example, growers complained about a labor shortage. Yet when lawmakers looked at figures from WorkSource Washington, there were few requests for agricultural workers.

That's because apple growers typically don’t use WorkSource to find laborers, Kelly says.

This year, Kelly says he is encouraging his co-op members to file labor-wanted requests with the local WorkSource office to at least document any worker shortage.