Washington’s cherry harvest is building toward a July peak as the COVID-19 pandemic, while fading in strength, continues to pose challenges in what always has been a high-stakes enterprise.
Growers and packinghouse operators are hoping for continued strong consumer demand, boosted last year as consumers, with restaurant dining restricted, bought more fresh fruit at the grocery store to prepare meals at home. It is always a scramble to muster the tens of thousands of workers needed to harvest and process the cherries, and this year that task is made more difficult by a shortage of workers across some sectors of the U.S. economy.
Growers this season are expected to use more guest workers from other countries to pick a significant portion of the crop. The vast majority of these workers have received free vaccinations offered in Washington, according to growers and industry officials, and that has diminished the threat of outbreaks that could cripple an orchard’s harvest efforts.
Vaccination rates in the Yakima area — a prime fruit-growing region — have been lower among the U.S. packinghouse workers, according to the Yakima County Health District, and that has raised concerns about the possible spread of infections that could hamper processing.
Yakima-based Domex Superfresh Growers, which both grows and processes fruit, reports nearly 100% of field workers got their shots, but despite offers of bonuses and paid time off for vaccinations, only about half of the warehouse staff got shots, according to company spokesperson Catherine Gipe-Stewart.
Gipe-Stewart said “negative media” has raised concerns among warehouse workers about getting vaccinated.
Domex and others in the industry also have been hit by supply disruptions that have rippled through the broader economy during the pandemic, and that has driven up prices for packaging, shipping and other services vital to their operations.
Meanwhile, the pandemic’s continued toll in countries such as India, Malaysia and Australia makes it hard for exports to reach these nations. Melbourne, Australia, for example, where Washington cherry growers have carved out a market niche, was shut down in recent weeks by an outbreak that canceled commercial flights that would normally fly in the fruit.
“They are not letting anything in. They are locked down,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission.
The fresh sweet cherries that make up most of the state harvest are a perishable crop that must be quickly processed and sent to market. Thurlby calls growers “riverboat gamblers” as an ill-timed rain close to harvest can cause splits in the fruit and other damage to quality that can turn a prime crop into a money-losing venture.
Last year, Washington cherries grown on some 40,000 acres grossed — before expenses — more than $560 million for state growers, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
This year’s cherry harvest is available in Seattle-area stores but the Pacific Northwest harvest — dominated by Washington state growers — is still in an early stage. As of Monday afternoon, the equivalent of more than 1 million 20-pound boxes has been shipped out of orchards in a harvest that is expected to gain momentum this week and by season’s end tally more than 22 million boxes, a respectable but far from record-shattering harvest.
“There was some freezing temperatures and frost damage that reduced the overall crop but the overall quality of the fruit is shaping up to be really strong,” said Jon DeVaney of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.
The harvest unfolds in a kind of slow-moving wave that starts in warmer, lower-elevation areas around Pasco with some early cherries. It then moves north into the Yakima and Okanogan areas, with lower-elevation orchards along the Columbia River ripening earlier than cherries planted higher up the slopes.
By planting a range of varieties in all these areas, the flow of cherries is staggered over time, which prevents overwhelming the markets and extends the season that now includes some cherries that are picked into September, according to Thurlby.
Picking the fruit is one of the more lucrative orchard jobs, with a skilled worker — typically paid on a piece-work basis — able to earn about $30 to more than $40 an hour depending on their prowess, according to DeVaney.
Hiring enough workers, and having them all available just when they are needed as fruit ripens, is always a concern. This year, there is an added edge as labor shortages in service and other industries have created lots of options for workers seeking employment.
“Anytime you drive through a street in Central Washington you see ‘for hire’ signs, and they are offering bonuses and higher wages and still it is harder to find people,” Devaney said.
In recent years, growers increasingly have turned to the H-2A temporary visa program to bring in workers from Mexico and other countries who are largely housed in labor camps around the fruit-growing regions of the state.
“We are having a really hard time getting local workers,” said Kent Karstetter, who this year hired more H-2A workers to help with the cherry harvest and other operations at his RJK Farms in Grant County.
The labor force is typically bolstered by workers from California, who, after picking the crop there, head north to Washington. They often live in area housing, but can also request camp housing, and — if not vaccinated — could create new infection risks.
“We are worried when anyone gets sick. That’s a problem,” said Dan Fazio, executive director of Wafla, a human resources association that helps bring H-2A guest workers to Washington.
Last year, as the pandemic swept across Washington, the state Department of Labor and Industries developed regulations that required employers to provide masks for all employees, and only allowed the use of bunk beds in camps if workers were organized into groups of no more than 15 employees that lived and worked together, and were separate from other groups.
In May, those rules were relaxed, and masks are no longer required for fully vaccinated workers living in the temporary housing quarters. Some social distancing requirements also are no longer imposed.
Those changes are “great news,” said Fazio and John Stuhlmiller, chief executive of the Washington Farm Bureau, in a joint statement.
Even with the rules relaxed, Karstetter is keeping masking rules in place, with vaccinated workers required to wear them in the field when they are not socially distanced. He said his farm got through last year without an outbreak of the virus, and he doesn’t want to risk one this year.
“I personally feel like it is very unlikely that we will have COVID, at least in our camps, but we will have cherry pickers in transit, and we still have to be very cautious,” Karstetter said.