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Tri-City area farmers hired on more workers during key months when cherries and apples were prime for hand picking than they did six years ago.

But while the farm-labor supply for the Tri-Cities and Washington state grew in the past six years, regional worker shortages spread statewide, according to data recently released by the state Employment Security Department.

The so-called “Great Recession” provided a temporary relief, but starting in mid-2011 that evaporated, causing farmers statewide to compete for a labor force that just hasn’t been large enough to keep up with expanding crops.

For some, that has meant offering higher wages. For others it has meant doing without — or turning to the expensive, cumbersome federal farmworker guest program.

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Concerns about finding enough workers is nothing new for Mid-Columbia farmers. What’s new is record-breaking harvests in labor-intensive crops, especially cherries, apples and wine grapes, as well as changes to the migration patterns of workers from Mexico.

Also, another labor-intensive crop, blueberries, is gaining in popularity and competing for workers.

And state economists say the state’s improving economy may have caused some farmworkers to find jobs in other industries. In addition, the number of legal and undocumented Mexican migrants coming to the U.S. became equal to the number of migrants returning to Mexico after the recession, according to a 2012 study by the Pew Hispanic Research Center.

For the first time in 2012, farmworker shortages exceeded 5 percent each month from April through September, according to the recently released report. Growers lacked more than 5,000 workers during the picking seasons.

Despite the state experiencing the largest apple harvest ever at 129 million 40-pound boxes, Tri-City area farmers found fewer workers.

The most apple workers employed in Benton, Franklin, and Walla Walla counties was almost 8,200 in October 2012. That was down by more than 1,000 workers from the same month the previous year.

Field abandoned

Prescott’s Broetje Orchards was short about 200 employees for apple harvest that year despite all efforts. Since then, the family-owned farm has invested in more housing for their workers, something they hope will help attract people.

Cherry orchardists fared better, with continuous growth in the number of workers employed in the three counties for four years, ending up with more than 7,700 workers in June 2012, according to the data.

But with asparagus, a lack of workers is preventing farmers from being willing to add to the 5,000 or so acres planted within a 60-mile radius of the Tri-Cities.

Cutting asparagus is difficult work that is generally done by recent immigrants, mostly from Latin America, said Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission.

More than 2,500 workers came to Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties to cut asparagus spears in April 2007.

But farmers hired only 62 workers in April 2012, and not quite 700 in May, according to the recently released data. That year, one Franklin County farmer abandoned an asparagus field because he couldn’t find enough workers to keep up with the crop.

Growing competition

And competition between different crops and farms is only expected to grow.

Wine and juice grapes are harvested during October, the same month that apple harvest tends to peak. More wine-grape vineyards are being planted and reaching their first full year of harvest, creating a need for labor. While machines can be used to harvest grapes, some vineyards hand pick.

More than 1,100 workers in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties were working with grapes in October 2012.

And Schreiber, also director of the Washington Blueberry Commission in Eltopia, Franklin County, said the demand blueberries will make on the farm-labor supply is just beginning.

Schreiber anticipates record production for blueberries each year for the foreseeable future, especially considering the tremendous interest in Washington’s berries. Recently planted acres are still coming into full production and more are being planted.

Washington farmers grew about 18 million pounds of blueberries in 2006. Last year, Schreiber said the crop reached about 80 million pounds.

“We are not even close to peaking,” he said.

Eastern Washington will have more than 5,000 blueberry acres this year, with 80 percent in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties, Schreiber said.

Most of Eastern Washington’s blueberry production is for the fresh market, which requires hand picking, Schreiber said. Blueberries for processing can be picked using machines.

There are farmers who would harvest more blueberries for the fresh market but opt to process berries instead because they can’t find enough workers, Schreiber said.

Brandon Lott, co-owner of Applegate Orchards near Burbank, Walla Walla County, said they tend to need blueberry workers a little after cherry harvest. He starts hiring in June, with most hiring in July. For now, he needs up to about 300 workers for a couple of months to pick blueberries.

Lott said he’s been able to find workers so far, but he will need more as his yield grows. And he’s already competing some with apple farmers because of the harvest overlap, and apples tend to pay a little more.

That is leading Lott to consider trying to machine-harvest some blueberries for the fresh market. He said it’s possible he will try to use machines a bit this year.

Guest-worker program

In addition to exploring mechanization, more growers have turned to the federal H-2A program for a stable and legal work force, Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, said during a recent labor conference in Kennewick.

But state economists say the guest-worker program has not been able to solve the shortages.

Stemilt Growers of Wenatchee, which needs workers for cherry, pear and apple harvest, plans to use the H-2A program this year.

Brianna Shales, Stemilt Growers communications director, said it has used the guest-worker program before, including last year, to help get a consistent labor force.

While it’s costly to participate, she said it does help fill the void. And it takes a dedicated staff person to manage the program and meet all the paperwork requirements.

Stemilt Growers is fortunate because many of its workers will return year after year, Shales said. They also have people who work in Stemilt’s cherry orchards in California who will then move to Washington with the crop.

Pears also need to be hand-picked. Shales said there is some mechanical harvesting being tested in orchards, but it’s still tedious.

Other farmers say the program just doesn’t work for their needs. And whether Congress will pass an improved guest-farmworker program along with debated immigration reform is uncertain.

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