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Pickers Turn Backs on Strawberries

June 22, 1989

Undated (AP) _ PORTLAND, O of the Cascade Range.

″We could use 1,500 people, but the berries are turning soft, and it’s getting late,″ said Sue Brewer, agricultural field representative for the state Employment Division in Hillsboro.

″The crop is only half of usual, and we don’t even have enough pickers for that,″ Brewer said Wednesday of the situation in Washington County.

Growers had worried earlier that too few pickers would arrive from Mexico and elsewhere this year because of confusion over the new immigration law. Plenty of pickers showed up, but many are leaving mid-harvest.

In East Multnomah County, grower John Sester waited anxiously for labor for a third picking of his 30 acres of berries. ″The first two pickings pay our expenses. It’s the third picking that puts us into the profit side,″ Sester said.

″We’ve been in pretty good shape up to this point. We have about 70 percent of our crop picked,″ he said.

At the nearby Scenic Fruit Co. packing plant in Gresham, owner Dean Bredenkamp watched his new quick-freeze line idled for lack of berries. The plant usually employs 350 people on two shifts during the seasonal peak, but only one shift was working four or five hours.

Randy McAllister, administrative assistant at Oregon Cherry Growers in The Dalles, said he was not surprised by the exodus of pickers from berry fields to the cherry orchards.

″We have a big, beautiful crop to pick for two or three weeks, and the growers up in the Yakima Valley do, too. I think we’re doing OK on supply of pickers,″ McAllister said.

Besides the lure of higher earnings for workers, ″we have some awfully nice housing. We’ve spent money on it for 20 years,″ he said. The 7,000 acres of orchards in Wasco County have some of the largest concentrations of cherry farms in the world, McAllister pointed out.

Brewer said workers found the first picking of Washington County strawberries worthwhile earlier this month. But the unusual winter kill of plants resulted in poor yields in many of the second and third pickings, discouraging pickers, she explained.

Some of the foreign workers who qualified for work permits under immigration law reform have abandoned all types of farms, leaving a smaller labor pool, she added.

″People who got work permits want to get into factories or something else with benefits and stability. You can’t blame them,″ she said.

Immigration law allows farmers to recruit foreigners without work permits, but there are many restrictions and a 60-day lead time.

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