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Washington Apple Pickers Miraculously Defeat the Invisible Farm Labor Crisis of 2012

In an Aug. 13, 2012 photo grower Alan Spinniken examines a bin filled with Early Gold apples in his orchard near Suttons Bay, Mich. Spinniken lost about one-third of his crop because of bad weather but said he’s grateful things weren’t worse. (AP Photo/John Flesher)
John Flesher
In an Aug. 13, 2012 photo grower Alan Spinniken examines a bin filled with Early Gold apples in his orchard near Suttons Bay, Mich. Spinniken lost about one-third of his crop because of bad weather but said he’s grateful things weren’t worse. (AP Photo/John Flesher)

Remember the great farm labor crisis of 2012?

Of course you don't. Because there was no farm labor crisis in 2012.

A report from Capital Press, which bills itself as "The West's Ag Site," makes it clear that Washington's apple growers—one of the most frequent alleged victims of the farm labor crisis—actually wound up with a record number of pickers. But somehow this still counts as a shortage.

A record number of people worked in Washington's record apple harvest this past fall, but still some apples were left on trees because more pickers were needed, sources say.

There were 55,653 seasonal apple workers working in October, 54,543 in September and the previous high was 48,065 in October of 2009, said John Wines, an economist for the state Department of Employment Security in Olympia. Among other duties, Wines has been tracking tree fruit labor for 18 years.

The 55,653 workers is indicative of the record 129.2-million-box crop requiring more workers but does not mean there was not a shortage, he said.

The department's monthly survey of 1,100 growers of all crops, not just tree fruit, showed the shortage peaked at 8.8 percent more workers needed in September 2012 while peaking at 8.6 percent in September 2011, Wines said.

This claim that there was a shortage despite a record number of pickers doesn't quite make sense. It makes a lot more sense to say that farmers decided that leaving some apples on the trees was a more economical decision than paying the marginal cost of additional labor needed to pick every last fruit. This is how businesses decide whether to expand—balancing the revenues from expansion versus the costs. And apple farms are businesses. Why would every apple ever be picked, absent some kind of apple shortage?

Think for a moment about how many newspapers, magazines or books go unsold. They are "rotting" on the shelves of bookstores and newsstands. Some get sold off at rock bottom "clearance" prices. Others just aren't worth the shelf-space and get pulped because the book-seller's cost of continuing to sell them exceed the expected returns. This is exactly the same thing that happens with apples in Washington: farmers hire as many pickers as they can at the wages they are willing to offer, and let the remaining unpicked fruit fall from the trees. This isn't a crisis. It's a market.


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