While growers in the Gorge have found themselves in the midst of a plentiful yield of all types of pears, a late frost and a workforce of pickers spread thin have been cause for some challenges throughout the harvest.
At Riggleman’s Orchards, pickers moved among rows of Bosc, Anjou, and red and green Bartlett pears on Tuesday, snagging as many pears as possible to fill the large plastic bins that dotted the rows of trees and could be seen being pushed around filled to bursting with pears.
The pickers are paid by the bin and an early crop this year got Jon Riggleman, who supervises the orchard with the rest of his family, excited for a quick turnover for this year’s harvest, but when it came to finding a solid crew of pickers the orchard came up short.
“It’s been tough finding employees to work the harvest this year. We’ve gotten by, but our crew is definitely down,” Riggleman said.
At Riggleman’s, the average pear harvest crew is usually around 30 pickers. This year the orchard was only able to hire on around 22, but that number has dropped to 18 as the harvest has gone on.
“Usually we get the same guys back every year, but this year that group of guys just didn’t show up,” Riggleman said.
The story is the same for orchards throughout the Gorge: a bountiful crop with few workers to pick it before it over ripens. Riggleman said his crop should be harvested within three weeks, that is, if the recent rainy weather lets up.
“The fruit was a little earlier this year, but we’ll end up with a regular harvest because of the lack of workers, and the rain doesn’t help, either,” Riggleman said. “I hope it clears up because I want to get it done. It’s no fun picking in the rain and it causes slow starts in the morning while we’re waiting on it to stop or for the trees to dry out.”
Dick Rust, owner of Rust Orchards in Husum, finished his harvest in early September, but with fewer workers than usual. His orchard usually employs a dozen or so pickers, but this year he could only find six, even after calling around to other orchards to see if there were any workers to spare.
“I was short and some of the pickers I had to use were inexperienced. It took me twice as long as normal to get my crop off with half as many pickers,” Rust said.
Struggling to find pickers for the pear harvest has plagued fruit growers on both sides of the Columbia this Fall, according to Jean Godfrey, executive director of the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers. The entity represents 440 growers throughout the Gorge and supplies workers when they are needed.
This year, Godfrey can only speculate as to why it has been so hard to find enough pickers.
“We’re hearing it’s impossible for workers to get across the border, so that’s a major issue. The workforce that has been here for years is also becoming older and dropping out of the market and their children are educated and go into other fields. That’s probably the main things, an older work force, younger guys can’t get into the country, and their children do not go into agriculture,” Godfrey said.
At Mt. Adams Orchards, which uses the H-2A program to bring in its workers, around 120 pickers have been working through the harvest, which started for them in mid-August, according to Don Gibson, president of the orchard.
“Basically the workers return to Mexico immediately after the harvest,” Gibson said of the H-2A pickers. “As a consequence we have a better supply of workers compared to only relying on domestic workers.”
But finding workers isn’t the only issue plaguing some orchards. At Riggleman’s, a late frost in May has left some pears with a brown smudge that can only be associated with frost damage. Other than that, Riggleman has been pleased with the volume of pears coming in and said the Bartlett pears are a little bigger this year, which is great for consumers, but can be detrimental to growers and the price of fruit.
“Large crops throughout the Gorge impact the market. Hopefully prices stay up, but usually the bigger the crop, the lower the price,” Riggleman said. “When we pick we usually don’t know what we’ll end up getting for them because the market fluctuates so much through winter.”
There was also the fireball that consumed a workshop holding Riggleman’s harvest equipment early in August. The 30-by-60 wood-and-metal pole barn was engulfed in flames around 4:30 am on Aug. 4.
Everything inside the workshop was destroyed, including picking bags, trellis wire, loppers, and two Kubota RTVs. The Rigglemans homes were only saved due to the family dog, Fletch, who barked until everyone woke up to see the shed up in flames.
But, it looks like hell, high water, or a slim-pickings workforce won’t prevent Riggleman’s from taking advantage of this year’s generous harvest.
“A lot of tools were in there we could have used after the fire, but we got everything up and running and kept going forward,” Riggleman said.