Cherry Picking: A Race Against Time

Cherry Picking: A Race Against Time


Cherries are a delicate and showy crop with an extremely short window from harvest to consumption.

By contrast, their growers are resilient people, and their pickers are highly skilled individuals with a high tolerance for harsh working conditions. This article describes the requirements for a successful harvest and addresses the challenges growers and pickers face to deliver the quality that consumers demand. It paints a thought-provoking picture of the race to secure the scarce capacity needed to harvest a product that we all take for granted.

Video Spotlight: Essential Workers Needed for Cherry Harvest

This post is based on The New York Times Magazine article, The Scramble to Pluck 24 Billion Cherries in Eight Weeks, by B. Jarvis, August 12, 2020, and the YouTube video, Cherry Farmers Worried About Harvest Season During Coronavirus Pandemic , by ABC10, April 13, 2020. Image source: nosonjai©

Discussion Questions:

1. For cherry growers, what uncertainties threaten a successful season? How do they affect operations?

Guidance: The uncertainties include weather, foreign competition, lead time, and available capacity in terms of bees, refrigeration, bins, trucks, and most importantly, highly skilled labor. If there is too much rain, fans, wind machines, and low-flying helicopters can be used to dry the fruit. Keeping costs low and delivering a high-quality product are musts to fend off foreign competition. As for capacity shortages and short lead times, farmers try to extend the growing season with different varietals planted at different altitudes. Many situations are beyond their control, and they cannot use buffers such as extra inventory in manufacturing or wait in services to deal with uncertainty.

2. Contrast the challenges that both growers and pickers face to harvest the cherries.

Guidance: Growers need to secure the limited labor capacity by dealing with the bureaucracy and requirements involving H-2A visas and by covering the costs of transport, housing, and minimum wages (or piece-rate system) for H-2A workers after being unable to fill the jobs with local workers. They must also provide the necessary amenities to protect the workers from COVID-19 contamination. With high domestic and foreign competition, any cost increase is a threat to the survival of their business. Pickers must pay recruiters in their home country, perform unsafe work for long hours, and face wage theft and retaliation when protesting unfair conditions. They live in the shadows and yet they are considered essential. Some would rather leave their employers than be exploited, whereas others feel that the money they make in the US exceeds what they could get in their home country. Despite the differences, the article implies that smaller-scale growers and farm workers have something in common: their opportunities for economic prosperity continue to shrink.

3. Based on your answer to question 2, what solutions do you propose for a more stable capacity?

Guidance: The issue depicted in the article is a basic imbalance between capacity and demand. It is regrettable that the solution to an economic and operations problem is hampered by politics. There should be consensus that growers need to have the resources to succeed and that local workers must have priority over foreign ones in securing jobs. Similarly, foreign workers should be able to work safely and with dignity.

There is never a perfect match between capacity and demand, but forecasts, though imperfect, should supersede political bias in setting H-2A quotas and in ensuring that farmers get the labor force they need. Fair wages would also help boost capacity, but farmers fear that higher wages will threaten their competitiveness. Perhaps cherry growers could use the same advertising strategies as coffee (“fair trade”) growers to justify higher market prices. They could also find ways to bypass other players in the supply chain and maintain their profit margins despite cost increases. Besides the expansion of guest worker programs and fair wages to increase and stabilize capacity, investments in mechanization may provide some relief as well. This is an opportunity to discuss some of the problems associated with mechanization: cherries do not ripen at the same time on a tree, the fruit may get bruised when picked, etc.


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