Forget Westlake Center and City Hall--Protestors Ought to Occupy Washington's Apple Orchards

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Washington's apple growers are getting desperate. Harvest season is here, but the workers needed to pick the state's signature crop are nowhere to be found. Idaho faced a similar crisis with its potatoes, as did Georgia, where blueberries, onions, and melons "rotted in the fields" because many migrant laborers fled the state following the enactment of a strict new immigration law. Both of those states turned to convicts as an emergency stopgap measure, but here in the Northwest there are already thousands of people demanding equal employment opportunities and jobs that pay a decent wage: Occupy Seattle protesters.

A combination of factors contributed to the state's labor shortage. According to Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Grower's League, the harvest season in California has lasted longer than usual, and so many migrants have remained there rather than trek up I-5 and east of the mountains. Secondly, Mexican drug cartels have made crossing the border even more dangerous than in previous years. And, as in other states, many workers have been scared off -- or sent home -- by the Obama administration's crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

"There's been a gradual deterioration of the agricultural workforce," Gempler tells Seattle Weekly. "There's a tougher environment in the U.S. for people using false documents."

That has left many orchard owners -- particularly the smaller mom-and-pop operations -- in a pickle when it comes to pickers. Wages have risen as high as $12 per hour, but as the Tacoma News-Tribune reported earlier this week, roughly 72 percent or 66,000 of the 92,000 workers needed for seasonal harvests are "document challenged."

An usually cool summer has pushed the harvest back several weeks, and Gempler says an early freeze could be devastating with so many apples left on the trees. "There's a lot of fruit that has to be picked in a very short period of time," he says. "We just don't have a lot of people looking for work. Just about everybody is short on pickers. I talked to one woman just recently who had 40 acres of fruit, golden delicious, ready to get off the trees and nobody to pick it. We're in a real tight spot."

Diane Kurrle, vice-president of public affairs for the U.S. Apple Association, says apple growers in New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia face similar predicaments. And it's not like they haven't tried hiring U.S. citizens. Most farmers use the government's guest worker program, which requires extensive advertising of jobs in local listings and through state employment agencies before visas are granted to foreigners. But despite unemployment hovering around 10 percent, Kurrle says it's nearly impossible to find Americans willing to work hard, long hours, "including the type of people who are maybe at Occupy Seattle right now."

"The reality is, 20 people say they're interested, five show up, and only one lasts more than a couple hours," Kurrle says. "That's honestly the experience of most growers in Washington state, Michigan, New England - pretty much anywhere across the country."

The farm lobby believes things will be even worse next year if Congress passes the bill that would make E-Verify -- a program the checks workers' social security numbers against an electronic database -- mandatory for all employers. (Currently, E-verify is only required for government jobs and contractors, and private businesses can opt-in.)

So while it's not the least bit realistic to think that the Occupy protesters will move their encampments from downtown Seattle to downtown Mattawa, the state's fruit growers and migrant laborers could certainly use some solidarity when it comes time for their local lawmakers to cast their votes on the issue. Who knows, they might even get gifted a few bushels of honeycrisps to go with those donuts and hot dogs they've been eating.

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