The harvest was delayed and there weren't enough pickers to handle the harvest, but Washington apples completed the year with the third largest tonnage to date.
December estimates put the crop at 104.3 million boxes, a 2.6 million bigger production than growers anticipated a month earlier. It was short of the record set in 2010 of nearly 110 million boxes, and came in third place after 2008's 108 million boxes.
The labor shortage this year in orchard crops hit the apple crop hardest due to its later picking season which saw many of the Hispanic picking crews already moved out of the area. So desperate was the industry for hands in the field that local businesses in Wenatchee, the apple production center, closed down to allow workers to volunteer in the orchards.
Special plans were also made to bring in workers from other regions of the U.S. to help remove the crop from the trees and transport them to nearby packing and processing facilities.
The shortage of workers is getting worse, according to tree fruit industry spokespersons, and the search for mechanization of harvest of trees is a top concern in research today among Washington and other Pacific Northwest farmers.
The cherry industry, which is one of the early PNW crops to be harvested and usually enjoys a surplus of available labor, is also concerned and is supporting development of a mechanical harvester prototype which may become a commercial product in about two years, say University of Washington researchers.
While cherry growers report few problems obtaining labor, the industry is concerned with dwindling supplies of workers in recent years. Mechanical harvesters would not only reduce worries over labor supplies, but can help produces reduce their picking costs as well, which represent more than 50% of the cost of production in orchards today.
For more on the development of the mechanical harvester, look in the January issue of Western Farmer-Stockman, which may viewed online at www.FarmProgress.com by clicking on "Magazines Online" after Dec. 27.