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Labor shortage challenges farmers to pick fruit in time


A wealth of pears and a dearth of people to pick them.

That sums up the situation with harvest 2013 in Hood River Valley.

“We’re having a great harvest, but we have the problem of a labor shortage,” said Parkdale grower Gordy Sato, noting that he has a record crop this year, with volume up 10 percent.

“It’s a beautiful, nice quality crop,” Pine Grove grower Dan Sheppard said.

“It’s a good harvest, and a clean crop, with good-sized fruit; the only issue is the shortage of pickers,” said Jean Godfrey of Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers. Her office serves as a labor clearinghouse for growers, letting the State Employment office know who needs workers where.

Anyone interested in picking can call the Employment Division in The Dalles and get their name on the list, Godfrey said.

Wasco County growers are experiencing the same problem, she said.

Lack of workers “lengthens the harvest, which, if it’s only a few days that’s okay, but if it gets to be too long, you have problems where the fruit starts ripening too much,” Godfrey said.

Gary Willis of Pine Grove took the step Thursday of hiring helicopter pilot Andrew Kilgore of The Dalles to spray “Stop Drop” on some of his Anjou orchards. The chemical causes the trees to hold onto the fruit longer, giving Willis more time to pick bountiful fruit with fewer workers.

“I have 28 pickers working for me right now, but last year at this time I had 55,” Gary Willis said.

“The fruit is looking great, nice big pears that did really well in the spring and summer weather,” he said.

Dee grower Erick von Lubken said he has enough workers, and “fruit size and volume make for one of the largest crops we’ve ever picked up here.” Von Lubken also grows pears in the lower valley, which is finished for the year. He said the harvest was “a little lighter in the lower valley, due to wrong timing on pollination.”

Shepherd said “The warm weather all summer advanced all the crops a little earlier bloom and the warm weather just kept pushing. We’re 10 days to two weeks ahead,” he said.

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Labor has been the number one problem but bin shortage has also been a concern, Sheppard said as he helped his crew get in his specialty Forelle pears in his orchard on Dethman Ridge Road. Forelles, with their distinctive red swaths and mottling, make up 5 percent of his crop, and take two days to pick.

Sheppard said even the colorful Forelles are larger than usual, looking almost like two-toned Anjous. Finding bins for the fruit was a challenge this year.

“Last week it was pretty tight for several of the warehouses,” Sheppard said. “A combination of things has led to it. We could only get what we need on a daily basis, and a lot of us get our bins prior and spread them throughout the orchards and recently, it was a bit short, tight for us all.

“With the large, nice-quality Bartletts, very few went to canneries in the valleys and when we ship to canneries they usually turn them around so with fewer going, fewer were returning. Some of the warehouses have sent some bins out with the fruit to help with efficiency in the warehouses,” Sheppard said.

“The Bosc crop was very large, and Parkdale has a large crop and Parkdale has taken a lot of bins up there, so a variety of things have led to it.”

Sheppard said the bin crunch “is starting to ease now, as well as with the shortage of labor.”

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