Washington cherry harvest in coronavirus crosshairs

Apr 15, 2020, 8:20 AM
migrant labor, cherry harvest Washington...
Picking and sorting cherries in Central Washington. (AP Photo/Andrei Pungovschi)
(AP Photo/Andrei Pungovschi)

Washington state exporters have been getting crushed this year, whether it’s Boeing not delivering planes or our geoduck farmers not able to sell their products to Asian markets. So, how long will this last, and will closed ports and the lack of shipping options doom our farming industry?

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Washington’s farms generate around $7 billion of economic impact on the state. The industry is why Washington is always one of the top exporters in the country.

Preexisting tariffs and now the coronavirus have been taking a big toll. We heard in March how geoduck farmers couldn’t get their products to Asia because the ports were closed. Our state’s cherry farmers and apple farmers could very well experience similar issues of their own.

Jon DeVaney is president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, and he doesn’t like what he’s been seeing.

“Milk [is] getting dumped and eggs being destroyed, and some vegetable crops in some states [are] being plowed under just because there’s not an ability to get them to the customers in a way they can use it,” he said. “We don’t want that to happen with our cherry crop.”

It’s the cherry crop that is up first. Harvesting usually begins in mid-May, and DeVaney said farmers really have no idea if they’ll be able to get to work.

“The biggest question that a lot of my growers and packers are worried about is knowing exactly what the timeline is or how long a lot of these restrictions will remain in place and when things may change again,” DuVaney said.

They are hopeful Governor Inslee’s May 4 deadline will hold, but they don’t know, making it so they can’t solidify a schedule.

The other major factor is the labor force. An estimated 25,000 seasonal migrant workers are used to harvest Washington crops.

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How do they get here? How can they socially distance in the fields, the packing facilities, or in housing?

“Will people be able to get where they need to go,” DuVaney wondered. “How do you transport workers? How many people can you put on a bus? How many people can you house in housing safely? These are a lot of the questions that growers are trying to get answers to, and the state and feds are still giving us evolving guidance.”

There is a visa issue as well, with the guidelines somewhat confused this year. The federal government has waived some rules, like in-person interviews for workers who were here last year and have an H-2A visa. There are some reports that the confusion has created a logjam at the Mexican border. DeVaney is hoping Washington will gets the workers it needs.

The next few weeks will be critical for Washington’s cherry crop. Apples and pears follow the cherries, but they can be stored for a while; cherries cannot, and need to be shipped quickly.  Hopefully, we won’t see them dying on the trees because they can’t be harvested, or rotting in crates that can’t be shipped.

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Washington cherry harvest in coronavirus crosshairs