http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2018528816_asparagus26m.html ELTOPIA, Franklin County — Dawn breaks over the field as cutters bend to their work: stoop, slice, stoop, slice. As Washington's asparagus season draws to a close, growers have much to feel good about. Prices have been high all season, matching demand. The weather has cooperated, and the quality of the crop is superb. But as the last grass, as it's known, is cut from the fields, there is a distinct unease instead of a sense of celebration. Just as the industry has made a comeback after a decade of getting clobbered by cheap imports, growers left about 10 percent of the crop in the fields for the first time anyone could remember. And not for lack of market, or a decent price. "We just could not find the people to cut it," said Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington State Asparagus Commission in Eltopia. And it's just the beginning, growers fear, as the summer cherry harvest — predicted to be a record crop this year, and the most labor intensive of all — kicks into gear this week. Growers had trouble mustering the small crews needed to cut asparagus over the adagio rhythm of a 10-week season on about 5,000 acres. How will cherry growers muster the 40,000 workers they need to strip off their crop, typically in a 10-day sprint in most orchards? "I think we are all terrified," said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission and Northwest Cherry Growers. Nobody produces more apples and sweet cherries for fresh eating than Washington, which has a lot on the line with record crops expected in both this harvest season. "Will we be able to pick the crop? That is the billion-dollar question," Thurlby said. Actually more than that, with last year's apple crop worth an estimated record $1.4 billion, and cherries worth $367 million. Problem with a history The labor problem in Washington's $8 billion agricultural industry has been years in the making. Some 150,000 seasonal workers are needed to bring in the state's crops each year; only Florida, California and Texas employ more. For decades, Washington growers have depended on a largely illegal workforce, mostly Latino, to do the skilled, hand labor needed to tie hop vines on trellises, prune, thin and pick cherries, apples, apricots and pears, and divide, plant and cut asparagus, said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League. The dependence on Mexican labor throughout Washington's agricultural districts dates to the Bracero program initiated in 1942, in which hundreds of thousands of workers were brought through the 1960s by the U.S. government to pick crops. After Congress passed immigration legislation in 1986, including amnesty for illegal workers now living in the country, many Mexican families made the U.S. their permanent home. But the children of those families have gone on to other work. What is missing now is a workable government policy under which a legal, stable workforce willing to do the hardest tasks, such as cutting asparagus, is reliably and legally available, Schreiber said.