Stonefruit hard work for Washington growers

With the speed of a Vegas card cheat, Amelia Beltran flashes through her work packing apricots.

The 26-year-old single mother, one of the fastest packers at the Valicoff Fruit Co.’s stonefruit shed, receives them in buckets, sorts them by size and cranks out roughly 150 boxes per day. And like the rest of her crew, she does it all with only her nimble fingers and a keen eye for scale.

Like every other crop in the Yakima Valley, stonefruit — apricots, peaches, nectarines and plums — is having a banner year. Apricots alone might top 7,000 tons, 1,800 more than forecast, said Ric Valicoff, grower and chairman of the state’s Apricot Marketing Committee.

Even still, the state’s stonefruit volume hardly shows up in the overall fruit basket. Growers produce 100 times the tonnage of apples, for example.

Peaches and the like grow colourful, sweet and juicy in the Yakima Valley’s climate and soil, and like most local fruit, growers ship a lot of stonefruit to Taiwan, Singapore, Canada and other export markets.

But not many few growers want to put up with the required hand labour and extra frost control.

“There’s so much more work involved in stonefruit,” Valicoff said.

Stonefruit accounts for maybe 15 percent of his family’s orchard acres, which include apples, cherries and pears, as well. They only have that much as an incentive for their seasonal employees to stick around all summer between cherries and apples.

“I don’t really want much more than that because it’s a lot of work,” Valicoff said.

The buildings and equipment show the contrast.

In the Valicoffs’ cavernous warehouse along U.S. 97 in Wapato, construction crews are putting the finishing touches on a new apple packing line.

Like many new developments in the Valley’s fruit industry, their equipment will feature computers and lasers that measure size, colour and blemishes. Concrete is brand-new, metal shiny, wires buried and lighting even.

Next door is an older — though air-conditioned — room with a low ceiling and jury-rigged line of equipment along which 37 sorters, almost all of them women. They stand in two rows and await their apricots, delivered from the orchard in 3.5-gallon buckets that creep along a conveyor to each workstation.

The sorters surround themselves with boxes, and one by one place the fruit from the buckets in the right-size cup inside the boxes.

Beltran, with eight years of practice under her belt, does this with speed and ease, making her one of the MVPs of Valicoff’s operation.

The more boxes she packs, the more she is paid. On a good day, not including overtime that adds up toward the end of the week, the fastest sorters make $150 per day. Beltran, who lives in Yakima, is saving for a down payment on a house.

She sends the culled apricots — scarred, pitted or otherwise blemished — down a conveyor belt to be discarded. But only human hands touch the fruit that Valicoff intends to sell.

Other packers in the Wenatchee and Yakima valleys use a system of sponges and soft conveyor belts to help, but rely mostly on people, still the most delicate of machines for the fruit that bruises and scuffs so easily.

“You just have to have human hands involved,” said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington Fruit Commission in Yakima.

Meanwhile, stonefruit trees don’t handle the cold well. All orchardists must deal with some frost control during the early days of spring to protect the buds that will turn into the year’s crop. Peaches and apricots bloom earlier than cherries, apples and pears, making them even more susceptible. Plus, the trees themselves don’t stand up well to deep winter cold.

Thus, Washington — the national leader in apples and cherries — falls between sixth and eighth, depending on the year, on the stonefruit rankings behind giants California, South Carolina and Georgia. California produces 45 million boxes of stonefruit each year compared to Washington’s 4 million.


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