Here’s an excellent example of West Coast planters whining about how it’s so terribly impossible to hire a good picking crew these days. It’s that classic outtake from the Gospels, the Parable of the Many Apples and the Few Pickers. Quoth the Wall Street Journal’s Joel Millman:
PASCO, Wash.—Washington state is enjoying the second-biggest apple crop in its history, but farmers warn they may have to leave up to one-quarter of their bounty to rot, because there aren’t enough pickers.
“I’m down 40% from the labor I need,” said Steve Nunley, manager of a 3,000-acre apple orchard for Pride Packing Co. in Wapato, Wash. Mr. Nunley said he has 200 pickers right now, but needs close to 400. He has increased pay to $24 for every 1,000-pound bin of Gala apples they pick, compared with $18 last year. Even so, he expects to have to let tons of fruit fall unpicked this season.
That works out to $48 a ton, or 2.4 cents per pound, up from a whopping 1.8 cents. For comparison, the minimum piece rate that I was paid as a blueberry picker last week was 40 cents per pound. Last Saturday, I and at least two other pickers were given a ten-cent bonus for the day because we were picking fruit of such consistently high-quality that it barely had to be sorted. Blueberries are more expensive than apples at retail, but certainly not by a factor of sixteen.
In many orchards (the exceptions being those that have been planted with dwarf trees), these single-digit piece rates are what pickers receive for maneuvering sacks weighing dozens of pounds down ladders propped up haphazardly against trees under dappled lighting. It’s inherently dangerous work. Blueberry harvests simply do not pose remotely similar risks of repetitive stress injuries, sprains, bone fractures, or death.
It stands to reason, then, that the labor pool takes dishwashing jobs if it can’t get a premium for piece rate jobs that hopefully won’t make them throw out their backs or get concussions when they fall off ladders:
In a standoff, growers say they can’t afford to raise wages further, and workers decline to work for what they’re being offered.
“We could lose 25% [of the crop]. Or it could be much worse,” said Jeff Rippon, farm manager of Chiawana Orchards in Yakima, Wash. Mr. Rippon’s 300 acres have enough apples on them to yield nearly 10 million pounds of fruit, if he had enough hands to bring them in. He said he needs about 150 full-time pickers to get the crop in, but right now has only 60.
“Pickers pull up, they ask what you’re paying. If they like what you’re offering, they stay. If they don’t, they’re gone,” said manager Martin Estrada of Monkey Ridge Ranch, a huge apple plantation on the Snake River.
Do tell, Mrs. O’Hara. Say, how are you managing with all the Reconstruction they’re doing these days? I must say, that General Sherman is quite a character!
It’s the curse of hiring freemen. If they don’t like an underpaid job that may get them dead or crippled under a pile of apples, they may end up taking other jobs, leaving the poor crew boss to futilely painting another “se buscan trabajadores” sign on a piece of scrap plywood. Free association is such a buzzkill when it’s the help that does the free associating. Maybe there are alternatives:
The state faced similar labor shortages last year, when growers persuaded Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire to declare a labor emergency, which allowed farms to hire prisoners to bring in the harvest. For example, about a hundred convicts from a minimum-security facility fanned out among orchards in the Wenatchee Valley. But growers aren’t currently seeking to hire prisoners, who pick far fewer apples a day than immigrant laborers do.
Or maybe not. In the Old South, if I’m not mistaken, one of the polite terms for this part of the workforce was “recalcitrant slaves.” (The impolite terms were utterly evil.) Much effort and manpower was devoted to intimidating and punishing these slackers and saboteurs, often with heinous brute force. Today, the prison population in the United States is disproportionately comprised of the descendants of these slaves. Think of it: the State of Washington deploying black small-time offenders from Seattle and Tacoma into white-owned apple plantations at a fraction of minimum wage, not in 1880 or 1950, but in 2011. What’s more, this was authorized by a Democratic governor who was widely regarded as substantially left of center. It’s barely conceivable that these crews were not blacker than the overall population of Washington State. It’s no joke that we haven’t moved as far beyond slavery and Jim Crow as decent Americans would wish.
Apparently the Wall Street Journal likes to bury its ledes:
Farm operators elsewhere in the U.S. have said they face shortages of workers, sometimes because of new state immigration laws that have driven pickers from fields and groves. Some academic researchers say it is hard to quantify an actual labor shortage in U.S. agriculture, in part because there is so little evidence of a decline in production.
Philip L. Martin of the University of California, Davis, said overall U.S. production of fruits and vegetables has remained stable in recent years. Moreover, he said, farm-labor wages have remained flat or even declined. ”You would think that wages would go up” if workers were in short supply, he explained.
Yeah, I would think so, too.
I’d also think that Craigslist would be plastered with help-wanted ads for fruit and vegetable pickers. I certainly wish it were. As it is, I can count the number of current ads for pickers on the Willamette Valley boards on my middle finger. It’s a job picking squash at minimum wage that I quit mid-shift on the first day because the manners of the crew bosses verged on what I would expect of Arkansas prison trusties. I expected it to be worse than the blueberry job, but not that much worse. There are worse jobs yet in agriculture, to be sure, but at heart I really do not care to be a moral relativist.
Finally, let’s have a couple of brief words from labor:
United Farm Workers organizer Jorge Antonio Valenzuela, who represents pickers in the Northwest, said “there is no shortage” at farms that pay “correctly.”
….Not far away, outside a church in Pasco, a migrant from Mexico’s Michoacán state, 47-year-old José Carranza, said he planned to skip the fruit harvest this year. Mr. Carranza believes he can do better in construction work, which is picking up.
“Growers offer $20 per bin around here,” he said. “It’s just not enough.”
What? What about the $28 per bin–$28 an hour for the hotshot pickers–that all the growers were offering several paragraphs above? And what about the one bin per hour that the hotshots are supposedly able to pick? Management said it was so.
Whom are we to believe: the growers, who told a reporter about the generous raises they were offering, or this Carranza fellow, what with his sour grapes about the pay being shit? My guess is that Carranza is getting old and worn-out from having picked too many apples in his day, so if the growers are lucky I’ll be generous and split the difference for an average rate of $24 per bin. Honestly, that’s a wildly liberal guess. And this is for a line of work that, pursued as a full-time, permanent career, shortens life expectancies by over a decade.
There is a LOT of bullshit in this business. It’s endless. This article was published last year, in 2012, but the same complaints are made year after year, about crop after crop. It’s a perennial bitchfest about how there’s no one to pick all the crops and that it is therefore of utmost importance to admit even more foreign peasants until this nonexistent labor shortage is no more, the welfare of these peasants and of the communities where they work be damned.
That’s one gnarly old bush that overwinters just fine.