PASCO, Wash. – With lingering high unemployment and the endless talk of the down economy -– it’s hard to believe that there are some industries putting help-wanted signs out by the dozens. But that’s the case in Northwest orchard country where there appears to be a dwindling supply of migrant workers for cherry picking. Cherry season started this past week, and farmers and shop-keeps alike are anxiously waiting for more workers to arrive.
If you want to talk to cherry workers before they disappear into the jungle-dense canopies of trees, then you have to get up early.
We’re at Viera's Bakery in downtown Pasco. The shop opens at 4 a.m. and there are already sleepy people waiting outside.
The bakery patrons grab a set of metal tongs and a plastic lunch tray and load up. There’s gooey-filled empanadas, bread rolls stuffed with hot peppers and cream cheese and brightly-colored sugar cookies on tall serve-yourself racks.
A middle-aged man sipps a cup of coffee, while waiting for his workmate. He didn’t want to give his name. He’s observed there aren’t many people in the fields. He’s working thinning grape vines this day, and cherries later in the week.
“The way I heard, not many people like the other years," he says. "Last year there was little bit, and this year I think is the same way.”
There are migrant workers on their way from California -– the Golden State’s cherry season is just ending. But will there be enough? The Northwest asparagus industry says it was short about 20 percent of the workers they needed this season.
And cherry growers figure they’ve got 20 percent more cherries to pick than last year. And last year there was a shortage of workers. About 25,000 to 30,000 workers are needed in Washington state alone, all-at-once to get the fruit off the trees.
I’m standing on a pad of faded black pavement in the middle of vast orchards at Sagemoor farms near Pasco. The first cherries of the season are rolling through what looks like a giant fruit car wash. Kent Waliser, the farm manager here, watches intently and checks the fruit over peering into the bins.
“Put your hand in there, put your hand in there," Waliser says. "Go ahead.”
Putting my hand in the bins of dripping cherries, I find that they are colder.
“Yeah, very cold," Waliser says. "Probably 20 to 25 degrees colder than what you felt outside.”
Cherries are sensitive. When they need to come off the trees, farmers have a matter of days. Waliser says it’s hard to know if enough workers will show up when the bulk of his fruit needs harvesting.
“Everyone is concerned about it, but we don’t know how it’s going to turn out," he says. "And we won’t know for a couple of weeks.”
He’s concerned about the larger trend -– what if there aren’t enough workers from here on out?
“We’ve been blessed for the last 20 years with adequate labor," Waliser says.
"And so we’ve built a growing agriculture industry on the West coast, with availability of labor. It’s not that it’s cheap, it’s just that it’s been available. And so it does make you stop and think about how you are going to evaluate you know what we’re doing.”
It’s not just on the farm, but in town too, where they’re watching and waiting.
This door bell hasn’t been tripped often at the Pro Caps in downtown Pasco. Owner Mauro Ramirez sells all things sport: Soccer balls, baseball hats, jerseys. So far this year his sales are off 30 percent.
“I’ve been asking to myself why," Ramirez says. "But what I’ve been hearing is that there not much people around Tri-Cities, like farmworkers.”
Ramirez says he thinks tougher border enforcement, more deportations for small infractions and states that are making life hard on farmworkers mean fewer customers in his shop.
“Some of them have been talking to me," he says. "'Hey, let’s go to Mexico, Mexico is nice and why are we here you know and people don’t like us here.'”
The tree fruit industry is watching the cherry season closely to see if enough workers do actually show up. It will be a herald for the upcoming apple season that will require nearly twice the pickers.
Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio