An especially challenging season weather-wise for North Country apple growers is being topped off by a last-minute labor glitch that has left several North Country orchards at least temporarily without the Jamaican pickers needed to harvest their crops.

"We were hoping to get our men this past Tuesday," said Rob Hart of Hart Apple Farm on the Arthur Road in Peru. However, the Hart family learned in mid-August that there was an immigration problem with the pickers after receiving a phone call from the Florida travel agency trying to bring them into the country.

documents questioned

More information was needed by the U.S. Immigration Service related to their documents, said Rena Hart, who serves as secretary for the family business. That information was sent back overnight, but "last week we were notified it wasn't accepted," she said.

With apples ripening early this year due to the weather and ready to fall off the trees much sooner, at least three other North Country orchardists are in the same predicament.

Rena Hart said there were problems involving the U.S. Immigration Service, Homeland Security, the Department of Labor and the Jamaican government related to withholdings from migrants' pay for various taxes, Social Security and health care.

After intervention from North Country Rep. William Owens, senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont among others, Hart said she received a 39-page fax Wednesday night that hopefully will resolve the situation, but growers are still concerned.

"There's a lot of red tape," Hart said. "I think this is only the beginning of a lot of issues that will come in the future regarding the H-2A program."

Important program

The H-2A program, which growers say is the only legal migrant-picker program in the country, comes into play when it can be documented that local labor cannot be found. It has been supplying local pickers to North Country orchardists for more than 50 years.

"The workers are great to have here," Rena Hart said. "They spend a lot of money in the community. It's going to hurt the economy of the area if we don't have the Jamaicans."

She said she's put in probably 10 days of full-time work trying to deal with the problem and all the paperwork that's come with it. While it appears a resolution has been reached, growers won't relax until the workers actually show up.

"It's a worry, because it depends on whose desk it comes across," she said, adding that it's also dependent on how the Immigration Service and Homeland Security departments will interpret the agreement. "What's critical is, with this delay, how much longer will it be before they arrive?" she said.

picking hindered

The Hart orchard picked only 200 bushels last Thursday when there should have been 2,500 to 3,500 harvested if they'd had the pickers.

Rob Hart said they were lucky to have two workers who came up early to do hand work during the summer. "We're definitely happy we had those guys," he said. "We picked our early apples earlier than we ever have. I went on vacation, and I came back and they were picked."

The early harvest was caused by an extreme warm spell last April, when temperatures reached 90 degrees and trees began prematurely budding out. Then, frost in May came very close to doing serious damage.

At Sullivan Orchard Inc. on Sullivan Road in Peru, Adam Sullivan sees a good crop despite the close calls. "We see some areas of frost damage," he said. However, this only occurred in some isolated, low-lying cold pockets. "The rest of the orchard seems to be in pretty good shape."

labor a problem

Sullivan dodged the labor bullet for now, but still worries about the migrant-picker program. "It's been a bit of a challenge on numerous levels," he said of the 2010 season.

Although his men have been approved to come in this weekend, he said securing migrant pickers is a complicated process that he must go through every year. "It's a monotonous, time-consuming, inefficient system," he said. "We need a program that's going to work."

The problem seems to be resolved for the time being, and Sullivan said growers are grateful for the intervention of their elected representatives. However, "it never should have come to this," he said, adding that with any more delays growers are going to be picking apples up off the ground.

Still, it's been a good summer with plenty of sunshine and rainfall, Sullivan said. "Overall, I think there's a good crop out there."

winter was mild

At Forrence Orchards Inc. on Route 22 in Peru, Mason Forrence agreed the season is an unusual one due to the early start. It began with a mild winter, he said, and continued with the heat wave in April. "It advanced the bloom farther than we've ever seen," he said.

Now, the maturity of the apples is well ahead of schedule, but without the cool nights of early September having arrived yet, the color of the apples hasn't kept up.

"That can have tremendous ramifications later in the season," he said, explaining that McIntosh apples could be in danger of dropping before they color up, which could adversely affect marketability. Also, if they have to wait too long for color, the apples mature even farther and lose their ability to store.

While they don't want to see that "delightful-to-eat solid red," they'd like to see at least 50 percent red color before they go into the storage chambers. "I think we're approaching that," Forrence said.

weather a factor

While a couple recent cool nights have been welcome, the warm weather with temperatures in the 80s and even pushing 90 forecast for the coming week will accelerate maturity even more.

Some of the apples are a little smaller and have a lower seed count. While six to eight seeds is normal, some have only two or three. "We think it's reflective of the cold weather we had right during bloom," Forrence said, adding that the early bloom and the May frost when temperatures got down into the high 20s caused a very close call. While it wasn't enough to kill the fruit, even minor damage to the flowers can affect pollination.

Despite the obstacles, Forrence said, overall things in the orchard look good, and he's fortunate he has his pickers, especially in light of the fact the harvest is seven to 10 days early. "We have a nice crop," he said, adding that, on a selective basis, "We're actually picking Macs right now."

The Cortland apple crop also came through in especially good shape.

Entire region affected

Forrence said about 800 H-2A pickers in total haven't been able to come to the Northeast because the rules for the program were tweaked at the last minute. "It's quite a job to get these men in here, and they hope to iron it out within a couple days," he said.

While he's been a skeptic of climate change, believing things happen in big, natural cycles, Forrence did note that in the past couple years winters have been very mild. "Maybe there is something to it," he said. "Maybe the Hudson Valley will be growing limes and lemons."

Growers are always searching for varieties that will be unique to the North Country, he said, and that process continues as growers diversify. "There are very few places outside the Champlain Valley that can grow as good a Mac," he said, adding that he believes the sweeter Honeycrisp will be just a successful.

The latest trend is "managed varieties," he said, whereby apples developed in the state by Cornell or other research facilities are patented and kept exclusively in the state. That avoids a situation where local growers pay for the research and then another state, such as Washington, grabs the variety.

reputation at stake

Also, apples such as Empires that have grown well in New York haven't been as good when tried in other states where conditions are different, damaging their reputation. "The customer was getting an inferior apple," Forrence said.

Now, two exclusive, yet-unnamed varieties are in the works at Cornell that should be ready by 2012 for use only in New York. "Any New York state grower could have the right to join this club," Forrence said.

As for this year, Forrence is hopeful. "I'm certainly glad to see that after the tough spring we had, and the early bloom, the crop has done as well as it has," he said.

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