Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A few rotten apples

The difficulty of finding seasonal labor now hits the apple orchards of Eastern Washington:

This tract of Broetje Orchards is filled with jumbo red- and golden-delicious apples, hanging from branches that arc across long, fruit-scented rows.

Though pockmarked by spring hailstorms, the fruit is sugar sweet and prime for juice.
But there are no bins, no tractors and no crews here. These apples — an estimated 15 million pounds — will not be picked.

"We didn't have enough pickers, so they are going to drop," said Ralph Broetje, who will forgo harvest on 400 of his 5,400 acres of orchards.

Even raising wages couldn't draw enough workers:

Wages have typically climbed by 10 to 25 percent or more, with workers flexing newfound labor muscle to leave one orchard for another if they don't like the pay, according to Sanchez and Mike Gempler of the Washington Growers League.

....experienced pickers can earn from $80 to about $120 a day.

Which would seem to undercut the hysterical charges from some about the lousy labor market

But, Republicans worried about losing control of congress might want to think about what they've sown politically in rural, Red State, America:

Both growers and labor-union officials support a provision introduced in the U.S. Senate earlier this year that would streamline the program for bringing in temporary workers in times of shortage at wages that don't undercut the local job markets, and help resident farm workers who are here illegally gain legal permanent residence.

"Absolutely, we do have common cause about what should happen next. We need to have a legal labor force," said Erik Nicholson, the United Farm Workers Northwest regional director.

The House of Representatives hasn't supported such legislation. The House's Republican majority has backed a bill that would beef up security along the border with a 700-mile extension of fences and barriers on the southern borders.

Growers say that unless the politics change in Congress, they expect more labor shortages next season.

"What we are experiencing this year is a red-flag warning," Broetje said. "We are beholden to these workers, and they should be able to get here without risking their lives to cross the border."

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