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Apples ripe for the picking. Photo by erin.

Apples ripe for the picking. Photo by erin.

KUOW News

Inmates Help With Wash. Apple Harvest

Liz Jones
11/02/2011

So far, just one apple orchard in Washington has taken up the state's offer for inmates to help with the harvest. That's despite a severe worker shortage that has many growers facing big losses, as KUOW's Liz Jones reports.

TRANSCRIPT

This week, McDougall and Sons Orchard near Wenatchee put more than 100 inmates to work. They're from a minimum–security work camp near Forks.

The orchard pays the state $22 an hour per worker. That covers costs for housing, transportation and other expenses. The inmates are paid minimum wage.

Mike Gempler heads the Washington Growers League. He says few growers can afford the cost of inmate labor, which is about twice the average rate.

Gempler: "It's not really an economical answer. You'd have to be pretty desperate, you'd have to have some very high–value apples and you'd have to be very interested in taking a risk."

Gempler says damaged fruit and low productivity are some risks with inexperienced pickers.

Danielle Wiles is with the state Department of Corrections. She's at the orchard to help oversee the program. She says the inmates work has already improved from the first day.

Wiles: "The big issue is with keeping the stems on the apples, and we've really worked hard with the offenders to make sure that they're thinking about quality and not just about how many bins they can fill. And they seem to very motivated, they're very excited and they want to do a good job."

Wiles says guards patrol the fields with the inmate, and a plan is in place in case any trouble arises.

Mike Gempler says he's glad for the state's help, but he says long–term solutions are needed for agricultural workers. He blames Congress for stalling on comprehensive immigration reform.

Gempler: "There are answers, but it's all tied up politically. It's just frozen."

Gempler says he'd like to see a more flexible Visa program for seasonal workers and a more robust guest–worker program, among other things.

This is Washington state's first experiment using prisoners to harvest crops, but other states have turned to this labor pool in recent years, including Idaho, Colorado and Arizona.

I'm Liz Jones, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

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