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Labor-Starved Pear Farmers Buckle Under Bumper Crop

Oct 7, 2013
Originally published on October 7, 2013 1:12 pm

It's always a bit sad to say goodbye to summer corn and tomatoes, and settle into fall.

There are consolations, though — like the new crop of pears. Over 80 percent of America's fresh pears are grown in the Pacific Northwest, and this year's harvest is slated to be one of the biggest on record.

But some of the fruit is rotting in the orchards because there aren't enough workers to pick them.

Mike McCarthy farms about 300 acres of pears in Oregon's Hood River Valley. He has about 60 workers harvesting in his fields, but would like to have about 30 more.

"Normally we would have picked these Comice [pears] at least 10 days ago, but we're just getting here now," says McCarthy. "And it's not a good thing."

Many farmers are short-staffed this year. For McCarthy, it's the third year in a row he has had a labor shortage. He's tried the employment office, but those workers didn't have any agriculture experience, and they didn't last more than a couple of days. He's looked for workers in Arizona and California, but found those states facing similar shortages.

And he even went through the government's H-2A visa program to recruit foreign workers, even though it's pretty costly for a small farm. But by the time his application was processed, the harvest season was underway. McCarthy estimates the labor shortage will cost the region $10 million to $20 million this season.

"The bottom line is there are not enough experienced agricultural workers in the United States to harvest the crops," he says.

This is undeniably hard work, and like all agriculture jobs, it's seasonal. But good pickers can earn over $200 a day. And McCarthy, like many growers out here, provides free housing. His workers tend to stay, many of them for decades. The problem is that no new workers are taking the place of the ones who retire.

Farmer Jennifer Euwer also has an aging workforce; many of the workers who gained amnesty under the 1986 IRCA ruling are still on the farm. And Euwer acknowledges that the labor is exceptionally hard.

"Pears are the heaviest, densest thing. You know, they don't float. That's why you bob for apples. Nobody bobs for pears," Euwer laughs.

"I don't know if the people who eat the fresh fruits and vegetables in the United States quite realize who is providing that to them," Euwer says. "They're the people really who are feeding the United States."

Though many workers stay for decades, their kids, like 18-year-old Angel Najera Perez, are moving on. He starts at Boise State University in the spring, hoping to major in engineering, or materials science.

"It's very hard work," Najera Perez says, as he puts in a final season to earn some college money. "Yeah, the young people are going to college. They don't really want to work here anymore."

According to Bruce Sorte, an economist with Oregon State University, Najera Perez's experience is quite common — and it leaves a gap.

"There's two things that really affect the labor supply. One is, what's the alternative — where else can they work?" Sorte notes. "And then the other thing is, of course, the status of immigration policy in the United States has a huge impact."

Sorte says the future really comes down to better guest worker programs. And that's why McCarthy is meeting with his congressman this week. But he's a bit skeptical, because it's a meeting they've had before.

"Unfortunately there's such gridlock in Washington they can't figure something out," sighs McCarthy. "I don't think we can hold our breath for that."

While he doesn't have too much faith, McCarthy is hoping these conversations bear some fruit — maybe for next year's harvest.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The traditional fruits of fall, apples and pears, are with us. And in the Pacific Northwest, where 80 percent of America's pears come from, growers say this year's crop is one of the biggest ever.

But some of that fruit is rotting in the orchards because, as Deena Prichep reports, there aren't enough workers to pick them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Mike McCarthy farms around 300 acres of pears in Oregon's Hood River Valley. He's halfway through the harvest, and his pickers are making good use of a rare sunny day climbing ladders, filling sacks with delicate pears and emptying them into bins.

(SOUNDBITE OF FALLING PEARS)

MIKE MCCARTHY: Normally we would have picked these Comice at least ten days ago, but we're just getting here now. And it's not a good thing.

PRICHEP: Like a lot of farmers, McCarthy is short-staffed for about the third year in a row. He's tried the employment office, but those workers didn't have any agriculture experience.

MCCARTHY: I had one that lasted a day and a half. I've had a few that have lasted two or three days.

PRICHEP: He's looked for workers in Arizona and California.

MCCARTHY: And since they're experiencing the same thing down there, they really don't have enough people.

PRICHEP: And he's gone through the government's H-2A visa program to recruit foreign workers, even though it's pretty costly for a small farm.

MCCARTHY: But it took a long time for our application to be processed. And by the time it was processed, it was too late.

PRICHEP: McCarthy estimates the labor shortage will cost the region 10 to $20 million this season.

MCCARTHY: The bottom line is there are not enough experienced agricultural workers in the United States to harvest the crops.

PRICHEP: This is undeniably hard work and, like all agriculture jobs, it's seasonal. But good pickers can earn over $200 a day. And McCarthy, like many growers out here, provides free housing and his workers stay.

JAIME: (Foreign language spoken)

PRICHEP: Seven or eight years.

BEATRIZ: (Foreign language spoken)

PRICHEP: Twenty-two years and longer.

SIXTO GARCIA: Twenty eight - 28 years, yeah.

PRICHEP: The problem is no new workers are taking their place.

JENNIFER EUWER: Oh, I don't know if the people who eat the fresh fruits and vegetables in the United States quite realize who is providing that to them.

PRICHEP: Farmer Jennifer Euwer employs about 50 people. Her family helped many of them get legal status in the 1980s.

EUWER: They're the people really that are feeding the United States.

PRICHEP: Euwer understands this work takes its toll, especially on an aging workforce.

Pears are the heaviest, densest thing. You know, they don't float. That's why you bob for apples. Nobody bobs for pears.

(LAUGHTER)

PRICHEP: And though many workers stay for decades, their kids are moving on. Like 18-year-old Angel Najera Perez. He's starting Boise State University in the spring.

ANGEL NAJERA PEREZ: It's very hard work, yeah. The young people are going to college so they don't really want to work here anymore.

BRUCE SORTE: There's two things that really affect the labor supply. One is what's their alternative? So where else can they work?

PRICHEP: Bruce Sorte is an agricultural economist with Oregon State University.

SORTE: And then the other thing is, of course, the status of immigration policy in the United States has a huge impact.

PRICHEP: Economists note changes in Mexico's economy and birth rate, but Sortie says that the piece we can control is better guest worker programs. And that's why farmer Mike McCarthy is meeting with his congressman this week.

MCCARTHY: Unfortunately there's such gridlock in Washington they can't figure something out. So I don't think we can hold our breath for that.

PRICHEP: While he doesn't have too much faith, McCarthy is hoping these conversations bear some fruit, maybe for next year's harvest.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.