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Published: Thursday, 11/10/2011

Migrant limits hurt, apple growers say


YAKIMA, Wash. -- Apple growers say they could have had one of their best years ever if a shortage of workers hadn't forced them to leave some fruit on trees.

Growers in Washington state, which produces about half the nation's apples, say the labor shortage was made worse by a late start to their harvest. The growing season got off to a slow start because of a cold, wet spring, and some migrant workers didn't stick around to wait for it.

But farmers said an immigration crackdown by the federal government and states such as Arizona and Alabama scared off many more workers. They have tried to replace them with domestic workers with little success and inmates at a greater cost. Many growers posted "pickers wanted" signs outside their orchards and asked neighbors to send workers their way.

About 15 billion apples are picked in Washington each year, all by hand.

Growers have struggled for years with labor shortages, but they say this harvest season is one of the toughest yet. Typically, about 70 percent of the state's farm workers are in the country illegally. But many migrant workers stayed away this year after some states passed tougher immigration laws and the federal government cracked down.

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