October 16, 2011 in City

Apple growers desperate for pickers to gather crop

Associated Press
 
Tariff end gives hope

YAKIMA – Washington fruit and potato growers hope to see sales jump now that a Mexican tariff is on the verge of disappearing.

The Mexican government imposed the tariff of 20 percent in 2009 on 90 U.S. products, including cherries, pears and apricots. Apples were added later.

The tariffs cost Washington orchardists tens of millions of dollars.

Mark Powers, of the Northwest Horticultural Council of Yakima, said ending the tariff will make Washington products more affordable in Mexico.

TACOMA – Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire says the shortage of apple pickers in the nation’s top apple-producing state is dire.

In the Wenatchee Valley, apple growers have posted help-wanted signs across the countryside. For the first time in years, growers have also launched a radio campaign, offering up to $150 per day.

“We’re not getting anybody to take a bite on these jobs, so we don’t have anybody to do these jobs,” Gregoire told the News Tribune.

The governor returned home Friday after leading a 15-member delegation of farm group representatives to the nation’s capital. The group urged members of Congress to oppose a Republican bill that would force employers to use a federal database called E-Verify to determine whether their employees are eligible to work in the United States.

Gregoire criticized anti-illegal-immigration rhetoric prevalent in Washington, D.C., saying Congress should instead be focused on ways to get more foreign workers to help with harvesting.

Washington isn’t the only state in such straits. In Alabama, where a new state law is aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants, the construction, agriculture and poultry industries all report huge shortages of labor. A University of Georgia study this year found that state had a shortage of 5,244 workers in the fields. In California, farmers have complained of too few workers to pick the avocados, and in Texas, growers have appealed with little luck for more help picking their organic crops and vegetables.

Gregoire and farm groups want nothing to do with E-Verify. Roughly 66,000 of the 92,000 workers who are needed for seasonal harvests – nearly 72 percent – are in the country illegally, according to the state’s farm groups.

“All we’re going to do is penalize employers. We’re going to lose jobs and we don’t have any way to get those jobs back,” Gregoire said in an interview at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, where she and her entourage had met earlier with the office’s chief agricultural negotiator. “Now why – in this recession, as hard-hit as we are – would we, the state of Washington, support that?”

Jon Wyss, president of the Okanogan County Farm Bureau, called the potential results of the bill catastrophic. He represents more than 900 farm families in the county and said growers are facing a bleak harvest this year. He read an email that he’d just received from one of them, who complained about a harvest that was two weeks behind schedule because the farmer was 200 pickers short and it had rained on four of the past seven days. Wyss said all of his growers were struggling to find labor this fall.

“You can’t drive down a road in the Wenatchee Valley, between Cashmere to the Canadian border, without seeing a sign that says, ‘Pickers wanted,’ ” he said.

Wyss said Congress should streamline the procedures to allow more foreign workers to be hired as farm laborers.

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