EAST WENATCHEE, Wash. — It was as perfect a morning as one could hope for pruning apple trees in the deep of winter.
Sunny and warm. Forty degrees on the 10th of January. And not a lot of snow to drag ladders through.
Leopoldo Madera and four others started shortly after first light at 7:30 a.m. and worked until 4 p.m., half an hour before sunset.
They were making the best of it because 1 to 3 inches of snow was forecast for the next day which would likely mean no work. It’s rather miserable and not as safe on ladders.
Madera made it look easy. Moving his ladder swiftly. Focusing on cutting tops, old wood and suckers (tall shoots) in large old Golden Delicious apple trees in Mountain View Orchard.
“We want to leave new growth on the sides for fruit,” he said.
With last year’s USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service survey showing 179,146 acres of apple trees in Washington, 42,198 acres of sweet cherries, 20,965 acres of pears, 55,445 acres of wine grapes and 21,632 acres of juice grapes — there’s a whole lot of pruning going on.
Increasingly, more orchards start pruning as soon as trees go dormant in November. With workers in short supply there’s more concern about getting it all done by the end of March in time for the first delayed dormant sprays around April 1 to combat various pests.
Pat Burnett, a Leavenworth orchardist, wasn’t sure if he even had two guys pruning. Most of his year-round crew of 15 had gone home to Mexico but he expected them back in about a month.
“It is a concern because we lose one every now and then and have to replace them,” he said.
It’s easier to find workers for his orchards in Quincy, he said, because his foreman knows people.
Not only is more pruning starting earlier in winter but there’s more summer pruning because of labor shortages, Burnett said. If trees are well trained, that is their tops and new growth are under control, then it’s mainly cutting suckers in winter or summer, he said.
Abnormally warm and early springs and less lowland snow in 2015, 2014 and 2013 made pruning easier those years. The last two years was a reverse with snow too deep at times for pruning.
Dan Plath, orchard manager of Washington Fruit & Produce Co., Yakima, said the company is on target on pruning its several thousand acres.
Good weather and starting right after harvest has helped, but “the biggest reason we’re on track is we have 250 H-2A workers coming in this week and starting Monday,” he said.
The company starting bringing in H-2A-visa guestworkers from Mexico in 2013 and has ramped up to a peak of over 900 in August, September and October during harvest, Plath said.
“Industry-wide more and more are bringing up H-2A in January and February because otherwise there’s not enough domestic labor around,” he said.