Apple picker shortage highlights tension in immigration debates
October 4, 2012
Filed under OPINION
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The apple is the quintessential American fruit. A symbol in and of itself, it conjures up images of Johnny Appleseed, American pies, fall harvest fairs, a red schoolhouse and hardworking farmers. These images are real and pervasive: A quick Google image search of “apple” turns up pictures of cheerful, rotund, blue-jean-overall-clad farmers, and kids biting into big, juicy apples. But what’s absent among these symbols are the thousands of migrant workers necessary to the picking and packing industry.
We live in the apple capital of the world. Washington generates $1.5 billion annually from the production of apples, out-producing all other regions in the United States, and the world. It is reasonable for a child in Texas to pull out a Washington-grown Red Delicious, or find Galas grown in Chelan in even the most remote corners of the earth––in fact, last year, the USDA enthusiastically led a commission that encouraged the exportation of Washington apples to Indonesia, which in turn helped spur a “healthy food campaign” in the South Pacific region.
Apples are harvested in a short period in the fall and make up 10 percent of Washington state’s economy. Coming full circle, a risky relationship is revealed: Washington’s economy rests on a crop that is highly variable, time- and environment-sensitive. What’s more, it is entirely dependent on migrant farm workers who come to Washington to pick apples in the fall. Without these migrant workers, apples would go unpicked, and our state would not profit.
The numbers are astounding: There are about 40,000 pickers and 15,000 packers in the Washington apple industry. Most workers in the Washington apple industry are immigrants from Mexico. Working 10-17 hours a day during peak season, farm workers average annual income ranges between $2,500 and $5,000. And that is for male apple-workers.
Last year, apple growers in Washington were over 4,000 workers short. The shortage of labor is such a threat each year that guest-worker programs are the norm, and local politicians seek to disrupt the school year for middle and high school students for two-week periods so that they can assist with the apple harvest. Other strategies include using inmates from local jails and detention centers to ensure a productive season.
This fall, more than ever, Washington is experiencing serious worker shortage in the apple industry. Growers purport that this season will see the second largest crop in history. Apple crops in the Midwest faced serious damage; as a result, Washington apples have an even greater national and international market. Broetje Orchards, one of the largest producers in the region, has reported that they are over 800 workers short this season, and consequently face serious financial risk if apples are left unpicked.
Growers have been soliciting temporary workers, but when it comes down to it, the farm industry will have to support their workers far more if they are to save the apple harvest. When it comes down to it, the Washington apple industry depends on thousands of migrant farm workers, yet the reality is that the farm workers cannot depend on the industry, or the region that benefits from the lucrative industry. Forced mobility and instability, as well as this highly imbalanced relation of power between the workers and the industry, has serious implications for the social and political lives and health of workers and their families.
Local attitudes towards immigration continue to intensify, and misguided rhetoric against “illegal” immigrants has become a dominant voice in much of eastern Washington. Rural Washington has been a breeding ground for anti-immigration politics; just this year, several public officials have campaigned on a platform advocating fierce immigration reform to stem the influx. Although farmers and growers are typically supportive of immigration, their neighbors often underestimate the importance of this population to the region’s vitality.
So, next time you go to the farmers’ market and pick out a big, juicy honeycrisp apple, think of the worker who picked it––every bite you take weaves you deeper into the intricate political web of economic interdependencies and social hierarchies that support this state.