Maria Dominguez picks Gala apples in an orchard in Wapato, Wash., in 2007.
Maria Dominguez picks Gala apples in an orchard in Wapato, Wash., in 2007. Shannon Dininny/AP
Unemployment is stuck at above 9 percent, and it's become commonplace to call this the worst economy since the Great Depression.
But is the economy bad enough for out-of-work Americans to consider going to work back on the farm?
In Washington state, at a time when other wages have been stagnant, agriculture wages are up nearly 8 percent over the last two years. Some of this increase may be attributable to increased immigration enforcement by the federal government.
Late last year, the federal government reviewed the documents at Gebbers Farms, the biggest employer in the small town of Brewster, Wash., on a northern stretch of the Columbia River. The review — sometimes called a "silent raid" — forced Gebbers to fire an estimated 500 illegal workers.
The company is now using a more costly workforce imported legally from Mexico and Jamaica through the government's agricultural worker visa program.
Bob Brody, who has an apple orchard next door to Gebbers, says he thinks the visa system is too expensive, and the other alternative — hiring Americans — is a fantasy.
"They won't do it," he says. "Talk to any grower."
In the last 10 years, Brody says he's had only one American ask for a job as an apple picker, and he wanted too much money.
But now, the pay is inching up. Like most growers in the region, Brody says he needs more workers. He's offering an extra dollar per bin of apples picked; in his productive Red Delicious orchards, he's offering $15 per bin. At that rate, a fast worker can make $120 a day.
And yet, Americans still aren't applying for those jobs.
Language, Cultural Barriers
In town, Kara McWilliams says part of the reason is that white Americans like her don't feel comfortable applying for work that's done almost exclusively by Hispanics.
"I speak fluent Spanish, too" she says. "It's hard, that's why I haven't even tried."
But social tensions aside, the biggest factor is still money. While wages have gone up, it's still not what most Americans would consider enough to live on.
Craig Carroll, administrator of the regional state employment office, says that's particularly true for someone who doesn't have experience in the orchards.
"The people that don't really have the skills, previous experience harvesting fruit, since it is piecework, they may not even make minimum wage," he says.
In the Red Delicious orchard, a migrant woman from Oaxaca, Mexico, shows off her experience. She moves a ladder around the trees with lightning precision, and picks two or three apples at a time with each hand. Rarely breaking her pace, she fills a canvas bag around her neck, and when that fills up, she empties it into a bin.
The bin holds half a ton of apples, and she can fill eight of them a day.
"And she's a woman!" marvels Cesar Trejo, the crew boss at this orchard. At $15 per bin, she can make $120 for a day of nonstop work. It's better pay than in Mexico, but still not enough to attract Americans.
Asked if there might be a wage high enough to bring Americans back to the orchards, Trejo shrugs. It doesn't matter, he says, because it's not going to happen.
Pricing Pressure From Chile And China
"The boss can't pay more than he makes," he says. Pressure from low-cost producers in Chile and China has helped hold down the market price for American apples over the last few years.
Washington growers have made efforts in recent years to try to cut their labor costs to stay competitive. They've implemented more mechanization and planted a greater variety of apples, which spreads out the harvest season and allows them to get by with fewer workers.
Still, Brody says, if people want higher wages in the orchards, the federal government would have to guarantee him and other producers a minimum price for their apples — and that would probably mean higher prices in the produce section.