Cherry trees are shrinking.
Where are we going? To farm workers.
The Cherry Orchard
Washington’s small and medium-size cherry growers need to employ fewer people. The minimum wage is one challenge. Having just gone up from $9.47 to $11.00, it will be $13.50 in 2020. Estimated at $1,000 an acre, the cost of the hike is an extra $200,000 on a 200 acre farm. A second problem relates to immigration. Current initiatives from the Trump administration could reduce the cherry orchard work force. A decreased labor pool further nudges wages upward.
You can see that Washington’s unauthorized immigrant workforce has risen. In 2014 it was estimated at 5%:
Employing Fewer People
One solution is shorter trees. Called a pedestrian style orchard, farms with more compact, densely planted trees can eliminate ladders (and workers). When people prune and pick with two feet on the ground, their productivity increases from 100 to 170 pounds an hour. The downside though is an expensive initial investment and less vertical growing room.
As we have seen in previous econlife posts, farm mechanization is also a possibility. For cherry farmers that could mean vibrators shaking the cherries off the trees. Here though sweet cherry trees are not ideal. Some farmers worry that consumers want their cherries with stems.
Our Bottom Line: Agricultural Labor Force
As economists, we are talking about changing incentives in labor markets. Ranging from crop pickers to drywall installers, the jobs affected by those new incentives will affect a host of industries:
Starting with the direct impact on 17% of all agricultural workers who are unauthorized immigrants, we can continue onward to a long list of complexities. In certain states we have to consider a higher minimum wage. We also might think about imported fruits and vegetables becoming more attractive if domestic growers raise prices. But also, the impact will differ depending on farm size and the crop and the ability to mechanize. And, we have not even mentioned inflation.
So really we are talking about so much more than cherries.
My sources and more: Indicating increasing concern, yesterday’s WSJ looked at the cost of new immigrant rules. Several months ago, the Washington Post had similar comments that took me to cherry growers here and here. The perfect complement, this Pew Study focuses on undocumented immigrants.