Apples are a versatile fruit. They store well and thrive in temperate climates like that of the United States, which ranks second in the world in apple production. However, apples also bruise easily, so most tree fruit mechanical harvesters are simply too rough on the fruit. To prevent bruising and ensure farmers can harvest their crop at its peak, apples intended for sale in fresh markets are picked by hand. Consequently, labor is among the biggest expenses for U.S. apple growers, accounting for up to a fourth of production costs.
With its reliance on hired labor, the U.S. apple industry is especially sensitive to rising labor costs and constraints in the supply of farm workers. As farm labor markets tighten, hiring people to work in orchards, especially at harvest time, becomes more costly. Growth in the hourly wage rate for farm labor has been outpacing that of nonagricultural production workers. In addition, the H-2A agricultural guest worker program, a Federal visa program that allows U.S. agricultural employers to bring in foreign workers on seasonal contracts, continues to expand. In the last decade, the number of H-2A positions certified by the U.S. Department of Labor increased fourfold. To adjust to changing labor markets, to remain profitable, and to maintain high production levels, U.S. apple growers are updating their cultivation and harvest practices.
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