Guest worker rule could dampen strong apple harvest

Guest worker rule could dampen strong apple harvest

As the state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) considers a proposed emergency rule for guest worker housing, Washington apple farmers say an exceptional, high-quality harvest is possible this year thanks to good weather – so far. However, the L&I draft rule as currently written could severely hamper farmers’ ability to pick that fruit.

Washington Apple Commission President Todd Fryhover said in a statement that they “anticipate strong crop quality and excellent color for the year ahead.”

Communications Outreach Coordinator Toni Lynn Adams told Lens this optimism is based on apple blossom count and also the lack of severe frost damage. “Farmers are very dependent on mother nature cooperating.”

The state’s harvest affects not only Washingtonians who enjoy apples but the entire nation as well. Washington growers produce 65 percent of all U.S. apples; the state of New York produces the second most, at 9.7 percent. A third of Washington apples is shipped to 60 markets throughout the world.

However, Adams said there are still many unknowns about this year’s harvest, including how large the volume will be. Because the apple orchards are in a vulnerable phase of growth, poor weather could also reduce both quality and volume. To offset the chance of frost damage, farmers and workers are using wind machines to bring warmer air into lower sections of their orchards.

“There have been some really early mornings and late nights,” Adams said.

The quality of the apples harvested this year isn’t expected to affect prices, since “There are so many factors that go into it. It depends on the year, the varieties.”

At the same time, the harvest’s quality may be moot if there are not workers available to pick the apples. Under the L&I draft rule, farmers would be prohibited from using one of the two beds in a bunk to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The draft rule was released after a lawsuit was filed against L&I by Familias Unidas Por La Justica and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

In a public comment submitted on the L&I rule, Washington Tree Fruit Association (WTFA) President Jon DeVaney said that the “most likely outcome is a mandated shortage of essential agriculture and food.” He wrote further that farmers have already taken steps to prevent illness among their crews by separating them from one another. “This is expected to prevent any COVID-19 exposure, should it occur, from spreading throughout the entire workforce of that farm.”

Although some Washington farms utilize a “you pick it” approach for harvest, WTFA Communications Manager Tim Kovis told Lens that so far there’s not been much talk of shifting over to that business model. “We’re still marketing the 2019 crop. A lot of growers are going to wait and see with the 2020 crop. We don’t know how big it’s going to be yet.”

He added that the “you pick it” model “works in certain places. If you’re not near a relatively large population center, it doesn’t make sense. Is your orchard set up to really allow for the general public to come onto your property and harvest fruit? Each grower has to look at what their orchards look like in order to make those decisions.”

A May 14 hearing is scheduled for the lawsuit against L&I in Skagit County Superior Court.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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