Growers turn to tents to attract harvesters

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webmaster | 06/21/14
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Central Valley migrants are picking cherries

By Ross Courtney of the Yakima Herald-Republic

GRANGER, Wash. (AP) — After a workday that started at 5 a.m., seasonal cherry workers at Reddout Orchards spent their afternoon relaxing in the cool breezes and enjoying views of the Yakima Valley from their tent city.

One girl looked forward to her 7th birthday. Families cooked dinner in the kitchens. Men watched TV in their tents. A few even caught Univision’s broadcast of Mexico’s World Cup soccer match against Brazil on Tuesday.

“It’s comfortable,” said Salvador Sosa of Porterville, who is spending his fifth cherry harvest at Reddout Orchards, jokingly calling his time here like a “vacation.”

Sosa, 59, is one of roughly 100 temporary workers, including Madera residents, saving money by living in tents that orchardist Helen Reddout rents from the state each year.

Reddout is one of 13 growers in the state, but the only one in Yakima County, to use the state’s rent-a-tent program, created nearly 15 years ago as a way to fill a critical housing need and help farmers attract a seasonal workforce to make sure this signature crop makes it off the trees.

Temporary housing is in demand during cherry harvest. “I’m turning away pickers because I have a place for them to stay,” said Reddout, 78.

Cherry growers don’t have to provide housing for domestic migrant workers. But each year, orchardists scramble to find pickers for the high-maintenance crop that must be harvested quickly and gently. Some growers have their own apartments for the workers; others rent out motels, houses or other temporary housing.

While labor availability reports vary, generally growers say farm labor shortages are getting worse in Washington. State labor officials reported an 8.8 percent shortage in June last year, up from 7.2 percent the year before, based on grower surveys.

To help make sure she has enough hands for harvest, Reddout spends about $4,000 per year setting up the labor camp on her property on Cherry Hill just east of Granger. She charges the workers $5 per night, refunding their money if they stay through the entire harvest.

“I think this is the best investment I ever made,” she said.

The workers said tents are certainly cheaper than renting a motel or apartment. Sosa has been working the Valley’s cherry harvest for the past 10 years. He estimates he would pay at least $800 a month if he rented on his own. Pickers make an estimated $150 per day normally, while some of the expert workers top $300. But there are some hardships, like cold early mornings.

Roza Morelos, 33, and her husband, Juan Santos, 28, packed only one blanket when they came from Madera.

“We went to the store to buy another blanket,” she said with a laugh as she prepared an early dinner of shrimp and potatoes.

She and her husband stay with some family friends in one of Reddout’s tents. It’s their first year in the Yakima Valley.

Some plan to return next year; some don’t know for sure.

Emilio Carrillo, a 29-year-old father of three from Tulare said no way. Nothing against the tents, he said. Rather: “It’s too far away from the family.”

 

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