Last week, Jerry York and I spent the week in Washington state setting up our annual Western Livestock Journal Tour, which will be May 19-25, 2013, starting in Spokane, WA. This area has missed most of the drought conditions that have prevailed in other parts of the west and looks great.
While there is no shortage of water in the Columbia Basin, this country wouldn’t be much if it wasn’t for the massive irrigation projects associated with the Columbia River and the network of dams that service the area with hydroelectric power and water.
I am always surprised at what we see and learn, and who we meet on these ranch and farm tours. The world of agriculture is relatively small and it’s a business where everyone knows everyone. There are fewer people involved in agriculture in the U.S. than ever before and it’s amazing that so few people can feed so many. But oftentimes, those in agriculture get little respect.
During our visit, we met Cass Geabert who runs an integrated apple and cherry processing operation. They grow and pack apples and cherries for retail distribution. He also has the time to run a couple thousand head of cattle. His apple operation is one to behold. They grow seven different varieties of apples and process them to exacting standards for retail outlets like Costco, Kroger, Walmart and other large retailers. They process apples 52 weeks a year.
Every year they bring in 4,000 people, to pick their apples, and are required to house and feed them, which they do in four 1,000-person labor camps. These are nice state-of-the-art facilities that are well maintained. They put four men to a room and even supply flat screen televisions.
Most of the labor is from Mexico and they are here on H2A agricultural work visas. Cass said that they are paid on what they produce and can make up to several hundred dollars a day. But it’s the kind of work that few folks in the U.S. will do. But, can you imagine just one apple operation with 4,000 laborers? And there are lots of apple operations in that area. They must have an influx of a hundred thousand people coming in to pick the fruit for all the farming operations.
He also told us that he is required to hire a number of government refugees, which he said weren’t the best help. He said that most, on a good day would pick one crate of apples while the other workers average four crates of apples. While Cass felt he had some social responsibility to put the government refugees to work, he has had to limit the number he takes, and has set some ground rules with the government.
Fruit processing is a fascinating business and is quite high tech. When sorting apples, they are photographed 26 times for blemishes and size. They float down a sorting chute and a gate opens up and puts the right apples into the right pens until there are enough apples to fill a bin. The apples are sucked into the bins with water to prevent bruising. This is all managed by a computer and Cass needs only six or seven people for the sorting process.
We also visited a Hutterite colony outside Spokane and found another high-tech farming operation. This farm is around 13,000 acres and has a registered Angus herd of around 350 mother cows. They do embryo transfer, AI, and utilize just about every technological tool that can be used in the cattle business. They run a diversified farming operation including corn, wheat, barley and potatoes. As a matter of fact, they are one of the largest seed potato operations in the Northwest. They utilize Global Positioning Systems to guide their tractors and combines for maximum efficiency.
There is a common bond between the two operations we visited. They are both involved in the construction of a new packing facility in Odessa, WA, and they are both members of the Livestock Processors Cooperative Association. The packing facility will be a multi species plant with federal inspection. The plant will serve small to midsize producers who want to market their meat directly to consumers. The project is scheduled to open in May of 2013 and is financed through the Odessa Public Development Authority.
These are just two of the interesting calls on the schedule for our next WLJ Tour. We will also be visiting many commercial and registered cattle operations in some of the most beautiful parts of Washington. Hope you can join us! Watch for signup details in early January. — PETE CROW