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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The traditional fruits of fall, apples and pears, are with us. And in the Pacific Northwest, where 80 percent of America's pears come from, growers say this year's crop is one of the biggest ever.

But some of that fruit is rotting in the orchards because, as Deena Prichep reports, there aren't enough workers to pick them.

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DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Mike McCarthy farms around 300 acres of pears in Oregon's Hood River Valley. He's halfway through the harvest, and his pickers are making good use of a rare sunny day climbing ladders, filling sacks with delicate pears and emptying them into bins.

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MIKE MCCARTHY: Normally we would have picked these Comice at least ten days ago, but we're just getting here now. And it's not a good thing.

PRICHEP: Like a lot of farmers, McCarthy is short-staffed for about the third year in a row. He's tried the employment office, but those workers didn't have any agriculture experience.

MCCARTHY: I had one that lasted a day and a half. I've had a few that have lasted two or three days.

PRICHEP: He's looked for workers in Arizona and California.

MCCARTHY: And since they're experiencing the same thing down there, they really don't have enough people.

PRICHEP: And he's gone through the government's H-2A visa program to recruit foreign workers, even though it's pretty costly for a small farm.

MCCARTHY: But it took a long time for our application to be processed. And by the time it was processed, it was too late.

PRICHEP: McCarthy estimates the labor shortage will cost the region 10 to $20 million this season.

MCCARTHY: The bottom line is there are not enough experienced agricultural workers in the United States to harvest the crops.

PRICHEP: This is undeniably hard work and, like all agriculture jobs, it's seasonal. But good pickers can earn over $200 a day. And McCarthy, like many growers out here, provides free housing and his workers stay.

JAIME: (Foreign language spoken)

PRICHEP: Seven or eight years.

BEATRIZ: (Foreign language spoken)

PRICHEP: Twenty-two years and longer.

SIXTO GARCIA: Twenty eight - 28 years, yeah.

PRICHEP: The problem is no new workers are taking their place.

JENNIFER EUWER: Oh, I don't know if the people who eat the fresh fruits and vegetables in the United States quite realize who is providing that to them.

PRICHEP: Farmer Jennifer Euwer employs about 50 people. Her family helped many of them get legal status in the 1980s.

EUWER: They're the people really that are feeding the United States.

PRICHEP: Euwer understands this work takes its toll, especially on an aging workforce.

Pears are the heaviest, densest thing. You know, they don't float. That's why you bob for apples. Nobody bobs for pears.

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PRICHEP: And though many workers stay for decades, their kids are moving on. Like 18-year-old Angel Najera Perez. He's starting Boise State University in the spring.

ANGEL NAJERA PEREZ: It's very hard work, yeah. The young people are going to college so they don't really want to work here anymore.

BRUCE SORTE: There's two things that really affect the labor supply. One is what's their alternative? So where else can they work?

PRICHEP: Bruce Sorte is an agricultural economist with Oregon State University.

SORTE: And then the other thing is, of course, the status of immigration policy in the United States has a huge impact.

PRICHEP: Economists note changes in Mexico's economy and birth rate, but Sortie says that the piece we can control is better guest worker programs. And that's why farmer Mike McCarthy is meeting with his congressman this week.

MCCARTHY: Unfortunately there's such gridlock in Washington they can't figure something out. So I don't think we can hold our breath for that.

PRICHEP: While he doesn't have too much faith, McCarthy is hoping these conversations bear some fruit, maybe for next year's harvest.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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