GRANGER — After a workday that started at 5 a.m., seasonal cherry workers at Reddout Orchards spent their afternoon relaxing in the cool breezes and enjoying views of the Yakima Valley from their tent city.
One girl looked forward to her 7th birthday. Families cooked dinner in the kitchens. Men watched TV in their tents. A few even caught Univision’s broadcast of Mexico’s World Cup soccer match against Brazil on Tuesday.
“It’s comfortable,” said Salvador Sosa of Portervile, Calif., who is spending his fifth cherry harvest at Reddout Orchards, jokingly calling his time here like a “vacation.”
Sosa, 59, is one of roughly 100 temporary workers saving money by living in tents that orchardist Helen Reddout rents from the state each year.
Reddout, 78, is one of 13 growers in the state, but the only one in Yakima County, to use the state’s rent-a-tent program, created nearly 15 years ago as a way to fill a critical housing need and help farmers attract a seasonal workforce to make sure this signature crop makes it off the trees.
Cherry growers don’t have to provide housing for domestic migrant workers. But each year, orchardists scramble to find pickers for the high-maintenance crop that must be harvested quickly and gently. Some growers have their own apartments for the workers; others rent out motels, houses or other temporary housing.
Reports of labor availability vary this year statewide. Some growers said a small crop in California drove plenty of workers north, though some claimed Washington’s early crop created the need before they arrived.
Generally speaking, however, growers say farm labor shortages are getting worse in this state. State labor officials reported an 8.8 percent shortage in June last year, up from 7.2 percent the year before, based on grower surveys.
To help make sure she has enough hands for harvest, Reddout spends about $4,000 per year setting up the labor camp on her property on Cherry Hill just east of Granger. She charges the workers $5 per night, refunding their money if they stay through the entire harvest.
“I think this is the best investment I ever made,” she said.
Reddout’s camp has 16 military-style tents, pitched on concrete slabs on the north slope of Cherry Hill, overlooking the Yakima Valley and Interstate 82.
Most are arranged in a cul-de-sac surrounded by green grass and young maple trees that she hopes grow tall enough to provide shade someday. She keeps families together in one section and single men in another.
The tents surround two commons buildings with restrooms, showers and a washing machine inside one portion and kitchenettes of refrigerators, stoves, sinks and cabinets in another.
“This is pretty extreme camping is what it is,” said David Reddout, Helen’s son.
The camp is inspected by the state Department of Health and erected according to standards set by Labor and Industries and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Those requirements include running water, restrooms, showers and kitchen facilities in permanent structures.
The state’s tent program started around the year 2000 after years of widespread illegal camping throughout the orchards, forests, parks and riverbanks of Eastern Washington, which created health and safety issues.
“It became impossible for the state to ignore it,” said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Grower’s League, a Yakima nonprofit that represents growers on labor issues.
State health regulators, federal safety agencies, public interest law firms and the Grower’s League all worked together to design tents and draft the regulations for campgrounds, Gempler said.
Under a contract with the state, the Grower’s League hires its own temporary workforce to set up the tents and the cots that come with them each year throughout the state, strike them, maintain them and store them at a Wenatchee warehouse. The service costs growers $15 per tent per night, plus a $150 delivery and set-up fee.
The state has 250 tents in which growers will put up about 15,000 workers for this year’s cherry harvest, the only crop they are used for, Gempler said. The state’s peak seasonal agriculture workforce nears 100,000.
The program has not grown since 2008, Gempler said.
“A lot of people just have not felt the need to do it,” he said.
Many growers simply prefer dealing with permanent structures. Tents wear out. They get hot in the day and cold at night. And they may not be used for foreign guest workers under the federal H-2A visa. The state has just discontinued a loan program intended to help farmers pay for the permanent fixtures that must accompany the tents, Gempler said.
In the late 1970s, Reddout and her husband, Don, tried to start their own camp, but state regulators insisted on restrictions the Reddouts considered onerous. For years, they looked the other way while workers slept under their trees.
In 2004, Don died of a heart attack and Helen felt moved to try again.
After banks turned her down for a loan, Helen sold off Don’s savings bonds and cashed in her teaching retirement savings to put $500,000 of her family’s own money toward construction of the permanent buildings and utilities, with another $500,000 loaned to them by the state program.
She opened her tent city for the first time in 2007 and has grown close to some of the employees, like Sosa, who come back every year. “We’ve watched children grow up here,” she said.
The workers said tents are certainly cheaper than renting a motel or apartment.
Sosa has been working the Valley’s cherry harvest for the past 10 years. He estimates he would pay at least $800 a month if he rented on his own. Pickers make an estimated $150 per day normally, while some of the expert workers top $300.
But there are some hardships, like cold early mornings.
Roza Morelos, 33, and her husband, Juan Santos, 28, packed only one blanket when they came from Madera, Calif.
“We went to the store to buy another blanket,” she said with a laugh as she prepared an early dinner of shrimp and potatoes.
She and her husband stay with some family friends in one of Reddout’s tents. It’s their first year in the Yakima Valley.
Some plan to return next year; some don’t know for sure.
Emilio Carrillo, a 29-year-old father of three from Tulare, Calif., said no way. Nothing against the tents, he said. Rather:
“It’s too far away from the family.”