Bobby for apples: Inflation, labor shortages could threaten future of US orchards

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Apples are at the center of many fall traditions, such as trips to the orchard or farmer’s market and pie making. But for the people who grow them, and for those of us who love the fall fruit, this year’s harvest comes with a unique set of challenges, including inflation and labor shortages.

Barron Shaw runs a family farm and apple orchard in York County, Pennsylvania, which began in 1841. He told CBS News he faces challenges unlike anything he’s seen before.

“Inflation is very stressful,” he said. “I mean fuel prices, energy costs, electricity prices … it’s all going up.”

Inflation is squeezing industries of all kinds, but the apple industry is experiencing a perfect supply chain storm that is hitting growers hard.

Apple harvest as a forecast of increased production
Festive apples on a tree at an orchard in Britton, Michigan, USA, on Monday, September 13, 2021.

Emily Elconin/Bloomberg


“You don’t go into this business unless you have a lot of faith; a lot of faith in God, a lot of faith in the family members around you,” Shaw said. “You know, that’s what keeps me going.

Unlike other items in the produce aisle that use automated farming practices, apples are picked by hand and require intensive and specialized labor to harvest.

Shaw said his orchard simply couldn’t find domestic workers for the intensely physical work. The industry relies heavily on international migrant workers using H-2A visas, whose wages are set by the federal government and vary from state to state.

Shaw saw wages for H-2A workers rise 10% over last year, to $15.78 an hour. Across the US, H-2A wages are growing 5-10% per year.

“We have to pay what the government tells us,” he said. “Totally out of our control.

The US Apple Industry Association estimates that total labor costs have risen by 30% this year. Apples on average cost 6% more this year as well.

Apple harvest as a forecast of increased production
A worker picks Gala apples from a tree at an orchard in Britton, Michigan, U.S., on Monday, September 13, 2021.

Emily Elconin/Bloomberg


However, most apple growers said they are not seeing more money in their pockets despite the cost increase.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, public schools will not be able to serve a fresh seasonal apple for lunch for the first year. County officials said local apples cost three times as much this fall and will have to stick with cheaper prepackaged slices instead.

To weather the economic storm, farmers like Shaw are trying to entice people to buy in the orchard itself—cutting out the middlemen.

Orchards can offer you a lower price and a higher profit if you pick apples directly from the trees rather than off the grocery store shelf.

Shaw said that could be a tipping point for some sets.

“These businesses really aren’t sustainable if they’re not profitable, and because there’s no reason for the next generation to do it, if they can’t make a living doing it, they can’t make a living doing it,” he said. (double check the menu)

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