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Cherry growers not feeling widespread labor pinch...yet

Cherry picking is underway in earnest in the Lower Valley and the perennial question - especially with changes in immigration law the past few years - is whether there will be enough workers.

The answer this season depends in part on who you talk to.

Don Olmstead is a cherry grower in Grandview and says this season he has a strong workforce with minimal labor shortages. He adds that may not be the case everywhere, though.

That's backed up by Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League. "We're getting reports of some shortages this year," he says. "It's very tight from what we can tell."

Because of the lack of solid statistics, he couldn't quantify the problem.

"There is no central clearinghouse for labor information," he said. "I don't have people calling me up to report. It's all word-of-mouth. We won't know until after the season is over."

Gempler had some information about other areas of the state.

"Up in Wenatchee we're hearing about some stress from inadequate crews," he said. "In the Northern Columbia Basin we've got some news about people not being able to get everything picked."

He also said a lack of workers has meant other tasks are being neglected.

"Because labor is tight there's not a lot of thinning," Gempler said.

"With the situation now, people are just trying to make do, sharing crews, being as efficient as possible."

While firm numbers aren't available yet, the Washington State Fruit Commission is seeing a trend develop.

"I talk to so many growers and I would say every one of them could use a quarter more workers," says B.J. Thurlby, the commission's president.

The estimated labor shortage of about 25 percent is mitigated somewhat because 2012 is a longer picking season. Thurlby figures this year there will be 90 days worth of cherry picking and shipping. That's in contrast to 2009 when the picking window was only 45 days.

"Because it has stayed so cool and hasn't been a traditional June, we haven't been challenged yet (by a labor shortage)," Thurlby says. "We're looking at July as a 12 million box month."

Since the picking season has been extended this year, he notes it is giving workers time to finish cherries south of here, yet still find cherries to pick in the Yakima Valley.

"A lot of our guys are still counting on a jump in workers coming up from California," Thurlby says.

The bottom line, he notes, is there really was a silver lining to all those gray clouds that kept cherry orchards cool this spring and summer.

"The message," Thurlby advises, "is the rain is unlucky but overall the cool weather has kept the (ag) districts separate to make the most of the labor we have. They were picking in the Tri-Cities the last two weeks and they're picking in Sunnyside now. They just keep moving north."

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