As the nation's No. 1 vendor of fresh apples has a new crop on trees ready to go, there aren't enough hands to pull them off.
In what may be one of the Washington industry's biggest crop in years, a labor shortage has left producers scrambling for pickers. Even inmates from local jails are being used to help out in the Yakima and Wenatchee regions.
The worker crackdown by immigration officials has left farmers, and their apples, out on a limb. Part of the problem is a loss of regular migrant workers who moved on to other areas as the apple crop took longer than usual to mature in Washington production regions.
Washington's apple crop is predicted to be down 5% below last year's crop, but still a bounty, officials report. The state, which provides 60% of the apples produced in the U.S., is expected to yield a 5.3 billion pound total for 2011.
A cold and wet spring weather reduced chances of the crop setting a record, creating some problems with freeze damage in some regions.
Nationally, the U.S. Agricultural Statistics Service puts the crop at 9.43 billion pounds,1% above the 2010 harvest. Production in the western United States (Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Arizona and California as well as Washington) is expected to hit 5.78 billion pounds,
Oregon anticipates a 100 billion pound harvest, and Idaho about 60 billion pounds.
Eastern U.S. output is set at 2.33 billion pounds.
The labor shortage has put the Pacific Northwest at an increased market disadvantage to other production areas this year, a fact regional growers have been complaining about for many years and the annual flow of labor continued to dwindle.
In an effort to help out the growers, retail stores in Wenatchee have closed for several days to allow workers to help pick the apple crop, which is a vital ingredient in the region's economy. In another action, hundreds of additional workers were recruited from Chicago to travel to Washington to help pick.