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Help Wanted: pear pickers a growing need

By SUE RYAN

News staff writer

September 30, 2006

The sign posted in an orchard near Pine Grove Grocery this week spelled the situation out in English and Spanish: Pickers needed.

Pear growers have been squeezed during the past weeks of harvest as fruit ripens at both ends of the Hood River Valley. Some growers have finished harvest while others are midway or have just begun the race from tree to bin.

“The pears come off in 21 days,” said Pat Moore, of Moore Orchards. “You adjust crews to get done by that time frame.”

His operation finished harvest Wednesday without any labor issues.

“We got lucky,” he said. “We had enough crews to get through the season and didn’t experience any slowdown except for that one rain day last Tuesday.”

Orchardists are currently working on their fall crop of fruit known as winter pears for the fresh market. These include several varieties, of which Green Anjou are the most predominant.

But Moore said he knows of several orchardists who have not been as fortunate as he. Field men who work as the essential link between growers and the packing houses see firsthand the day-to-day needs in the orchards.

Craig Mallon, a field man for Duckwall-Pooley Fruit Co., said the Parkdale orchardists are the ones still needing to finish their crops.

“They are not quite halfway done. For this time of year there should be enough pickers,” he said.

As far as where all the pickers are, some growers said that there is the same number as usual but overlapping harvests throughout the valley have stretched thin available resources.

“Think of the difference in elevation between Hood River and Parkdale,” said Leonard Aubert, a Parkdale grower. “Usually there is 10 to 15 days’ difference between fruit ripening (from one end of the Hood River Valley to the other). In my opinion, during the past three years fruit is ripening at the same time or closer together than before.”

Diamond Fruit field man Bruce Kiyokawa said some growers have told him their regular pickers have switched from seasonal harvest work to full-time jobs at mills or other businesses. Kiyokawa oversees 25 growers and said three are short on their crews to complete harvest. While the Hood River Valley is not new to the fluctuating supply and demand of the agricultural industry, he said this year’s shortage is notable for its duration.

“It’s the first time it’s been a prolonged period with growers going eight to nine days in length with low crews,” he said.

Many growers think the labor shortage will ease up within the next week as more orchardists in the lower valley finish up their crops.

Many other factors contribute to the shortage of labor at a critical time. This includes the timing of the harvest. Moore said during his 40 years of experience as a Hood River Valley orchardist that it should not be said that the situation is as simple as not having enough pickers.

He said contributing factors to a harvest crunch can include whether or not orchardists are using a spray program that delays or hastens ripening of the fruit, marketing needs or issues, and also regional pressures from other crops.

“Some of it depends on who stays to pick and who goes to Wenatchee to pick apples up there,” he said. “If someone is paying $25 a bin to pick apples up that way, well, it’s hard to compete with that.”

The picker shortage has not been limited to the Hood River Valley. Washington Growers Association Vice-President Dan Kelly said their 2,200 members are hurting.

“Everybody is having issues with labor; from the Tri-Cities to Oroville to Yakima,” he said.

Kelly said he doesn’t know anyone who has a full crew and crews are working longer hours to compensate. He cited three reasons why he thinks crews are down, including fuel costs, immigration, and a change from older to younger workers.

“The immigration issue has blown up this year and people are afraid to travel up here,” he said. “But another issue people don’t think of is that just like in farming many of the pickers are older guys who are retiring and younger people aren’t interested in the work.”

Aubert said he thinks the key to getting dependable pickers relates to pay and housing but he also said the work itself can be a deterrent.

“Everything changes every year,” he said. “We pay very good wages but it’s hard work, very hard work.”

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