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Prison Inmates Help With Wash. Apple Harvest

So far, just one apple orchard in Washington has taken up the state's offer for inmates to help with the harvest. That’s despite a severe worker shortage that has many growers facing big losses.

This week, McDougall and Sons orchard near Wenatchee put more than a hundred inmates to work. They're from a minimum security work camp near Forks.

The orchard pays the state $22 an hour per worker. That covers costs for housing, transportation and other expenses. The inmates are paid minimum wage.

Mike Gempler heads the Washington Growers League. He says few growers can afford the cost of inmate labor, which is about twice the average rate.

"It's not really an economical answer," Gempler says. "You'd have to be pretty desperate, you'd have to have some pretty high-value apples and you'd have to be very interested in taking a risk."

Gempler says some risks with inexperienced pickers are damaged fruit and low productivity.

Apples are a $1.5 billion business in Washington. State officials say growers are reporting more concern about labor shortages than any time in the past five years.

Governor Gregoire has called the situation a crisis and asked state agencies to help.

Corrections officials stress no taxpayer money is used for the inmate-worker program.

Mike Gempler says he's glad for the state's help. But he says long-term solutions are needed, including a more flexible visa program for seasonal workers.

On the Web:

Washington DOC press release:

Washington Growers League:

Copyright 2011 KUOW.