It takes many hands to tend, harvest and pack the fruits and vegetables that supply Northeast kitchens. Farms depend on skilled, reliable employees both for year-round farm work and for the extra hours needed at harvest season.
Farm work involves long days and strenuous physical labor in all kinds of weather. Crops wait for no one when they are ready to be picked. Few people in the US are willing and able to do this work year round, and even fewer are interested in seasonal work. Most Americans no longer have any experience with agriculture. As a result the essential work of bringing food to our tables is done mostly by people from other countries, who come here either temporarily or to stay and make a life.
The Farmworkers. [part one]
Lesvia whips out her phone and scrolls through photos of her children to find the video she’s looking for: a whirring, colorful scene of butternut squash being hand peeled, cut, packed and wrapped in a noisy well-lit room. Two men cut at lightning speed with machete-like knives as women move the bright orange orbs into the slicer and onto trays to be wrapped, stickered and packed into boxes. Lively music blares from a radio and talk, teasing and laughter ripple over the noise of blades and machines.
Lesvia manages the pack-line at Plainville Farm in western Massachusetts. Originally from Mexico, she has worked at this farm for six years. A compact, quiet woman with a beaming smile that occasionally breaks her serious demeanor, she’s proud of her work and good at it. “The most important thing is that the product keeps growing,” Lesvia says with conviction. She and the other workers support each other, taking “pride in everything that goes out the door.”
Nearly three-quarters of the estimated 1.5 to 2.5 million people working on US farms were born outside the US.
Although many have work permits or are now US citizens, more than half are citizens of other countries (mostly Mexico and Central American nations) and are working here without authorization. Of those, over half have been in the US for 14 years or more.
Plainville Farm, a mid-sized, diversified vegetable producer, employs around twenty year-round workers. Like Lesvia, most live nearby, their kids go to local schools, they pay taxes and buy groceries, and have built productive, settled lives here. Most are from Mexico, Dominican Republic and Guatemala; a few grew up in the area, on neighboring farms or in nearby college towns. Spanish is the predominant language in the fields and packhouse.
Wally Czajkowski and Mary McNamera, owners of the farm, are the third generation to farm here. They are careful to follow all the requirements for proper documents, payroll taxes and other regulations, and cooperate with inspections and certifications required by government and by their customers. The crews take regular breaks and have good access to water and facilities in the packhouse and in the fields. The pay is above minimum wage, the working conditions are safe, and the farm is a steady employer.
Wally and Mary also work hard to make the farm a place that good employees will want to stay. They keep the crew busy during the winter—painting, repairing equipment, cleaning the pack shed—so they have year-round work, rather than risk losing their experienced workers to other jobs. Perhaps nothing speaks more clearly to the dignity and trust among the work force here than the steady stream of customers, other farmers, workers and family members who walk into the packhouse all day long, welcomed by Lesvia, Wally, and the crew.
Finding enough experienced workers is a challenge every year. This year is likely to be even harder. Immigration raids and anti-immigrant rhetoric have intensified a climate of fear in rural communities throughout the Pioneer Valley and across the Northeast. Workers are reluctant to venture far from home or plan more than a few months into the future. Some have already chosen to return to their home countries with their children rather than risk abrupt separation. Even those who are US citizens worry for friends and family, and for the way they are viewed by those who think they don’t belong.
In early spring of 2017, Wally and Mary called a meeting of growers from their area to talk over their concerns. Over 100 farmers and local business-people filled their packing shed on a chilly morning. Passion and worry ran high, with few solutions available. A letter to their elected representatives was circulated and signed by many. It read in part:
“As employers…we depend on a largely immigrant workforce to get our work done. These are workers who we value and respect…They know our operations, possess unique skills, and are willing to do the work that most people born in this country are unwilling to do. None of us knowingly employ unauthorized workers, but national statistics indicate that there are over 8 million unauthorized workers in our country’s labor force… Losing these immigrant workers would cripple local businesses and devastate our national economy.”
Lesvia has no plans to work for another farm—she loves Plainville. “What I want to do is work and produce,” she says firmly. “This country needs us just like we need this country in order to create work for us and food for you.”
The Farmworkers [part two]
Once spring arrives and the produce season begins in earnest, fruit and vegetable farming requires more hands than can be kept employed the rest of the year. Those hands can be hard to find. When there is a shortage of local workers, as there is increasingly every year, the only legal option farmers have for hiring people from outside the US is the H2A federal guest worker program. Despite serious flaws, this program has a crucial role that most people never see.
H2A crews from Jamaica have been the lifeblood of the apple harvest across the Northeast for over 60 years. Farms throughout the region rely on workers who come to the US each year from Jamaica, Mexico and elsewhere to fill key seasonal jobs. Respected for their experience and skill, these workers often return to the same farms year after year. They are key employees doing critical jobs that are difficult to fill with local workers.
Albert has been coming to the same orchard in Connecticut for 27 years. Herman, the crew boss, has worked here for more than thirty years, and likes to tease the farm owner about knowing him when he was just a small boy. They leave their own farms and families in Jamaica to live with a group of other men, some of who they know from back home, in a house tucked among the apple, plum and peach trees on the orchard property. Some stay for 4–5 months, some as long as ten, the maximum allowed by the program. Most of the crew has also been coming here for decades.
Albert loves working in Connecticut—it’s beautiful and he likes fruit. Herman enjoys the chance to travel. Their time in the US allows them to make enough money to support their families, send kids to school, and put resources back into their home communities. But they want to go home when the work is done. “There is too much at stake down there,” explains Albert. “We just came here to work and go home.”
The H2A guest worker program is one of several programs (another was the Bracero program in the 1940s and again in the ’60-70s) that historically attempted to provide a functional way for agricultural workers to come into the US for seasonal work. Each of these programs has had problems and been open to abuse, but the need for a safe legal path for non-resident seasonal workers remains constant. H2A began in 1952, bringing laborers from the Caribbean to cut cane in Florida and harvest apples in the Northeast, so farms in this region have relied on the program longer than in other regions.
As labor shortages and immigration pressures increase, more farmers across the country are turning to H2A to bring in their crops. Guest workers represent a small but steadily growing portion of the workforce in agriculture as a whole, and a slightly larger portion, around 14%, of those working in fields and orchards. Northeast farms employed around 7200 H2A workers in 2016. H2A applications have tripled over the past ten years, to 180,000 in 2016. Applications for the first three months of 2017 are already up 36% over the year before.
But that growth doesn’t necessarily mean the program is a perfect solution. Administration of H2A is split among federal agencies including the Departments of Labor and Justice along with various state health and labor agencies. The regulations, processes, and requirements are complex, vary each year and are subject to change with little notice. The application process takes 3 months and requires farmers to advertise for and hire local workers first, even though years of experience has shown they are unlikely to find anyone to fill the positions. Before crops are in the ground or trees have bloomed, growers must request exact numbers of workers to fill specific jobs. With so many steps where paperwork and visas can be stalled or denied, there is still no guarantee they will have the people they need when the harvest needs to come in.
The program draws the most criticism because of the restriction that workers are assigned to specific farms and tasks, with no option to change farms or jobs once they arrive. This makes workers highly vulnerable if they are mistreated or not paid properly, especially since employers also provide housing and transport. When labor needs change, or there is friction between a worker and the employer, there is no option—for either the farmer or the worker—other than for the worker to return home. This restriction on worker independence, along with examples of abuse that occur both within and separate from the H2A program, has led some to call the entire program exploitive.
On most fruit and vegetable farms in the Northeast, the assignment to a specific farm has a positive side. Workers often return year after year to the same farms, becoming highly experienced, taking on more responsibility, and developing strong relationships with the farmer and fellow crew members. Some growers file H2A applications through organizations like the New England Apple Council, which has become a joint contractor for their members. This allows farms to share workers as needs fluctuate during the season. When several orchards had hail damage one recent summer, crew members were able to work at neighboring orchards instead of being sent home without the season’s earnings.
The H2A program also requires growers to contribute to workers comp and unemployment insurance and to deduct social security and income taxes from workers pay. These are important benefits and protections for workers who live in the US, but in practice, it is almost impossible for H2A workers to ever collect, use or benefit from them once they return home.
Wage levels are set based on a formula that varies by state. H2A wages in 2016 in the Northeast were set at $11.74/hr, and employers also must provide housing and transportation to and from the home country for guest workers. Any local workers doing the same jobs must be paid the same wage as is required for H2A. All of this means costs for hiring H2A workers are higher than they would be if local workers were available. Farmers say it is worth it because the people they hire are skilled, hard-working and experienced. They shake their heads at the idea these workers are stealing jobs from US workers.
One Massachusetts grower, whose H2A crew comes from Mexico, estimates costs per worker last year were $1000 for transportation; $350 to pay the labor broker; minimum wage of $10.40/hour; plus housing. He knows from the workers that sometimes they also have to pay under-the-table to a broker in Mexico in order to get into the program. It’s risky to complain about the program because he depends on the skill, experience, and reliability of the H2A workers.
Albert, the Jamaican worker at the orchard in CT, is matter-of-fact.“This country was built on migrant labor. Who’s going to farm if we don’t?”
The Path Forward
Immigrant and temporary workers who grow, harvest, pack and work on US farms make it possible for us to have and enjoy, fresh local food. Recognizing their role and affording them same basic human dignity that many Americans take for granted—decent pay, safe working conditions and fair treatment—are essential to helping create a more sustainable and equitable food system.
The economics of farming are challenging for farmers as well as their employees.
A 2014 study commissioned by the US Farm Bureau determined that current approaches to farm labor and immigration are pointing toward crop shortages and higher food costs for everyone. Their research found that immigration policies focused only on deportation and border closings would result in significant losses in production and revenue for most of U.S. agriculture and could lead to a 5–6% increase in food prices for consumers. Fruit and vegetables will be among the hardest hit: the report estimates US fruit production could drop by as much as 61%.
Farmers, agricultural workers, and eaters all need a legal, safe and dignified way for both year-round and seasonal employees to work in US farms and orchards.
Pioneer Valley farmers and businesses concluded their letter to elected officials in 2017 by urging: “As farmers and business owners we believe our government needs to get to work on immigration reform.” Recognizing who is doing the work to grow and produce our food, supporting both workers and farmers in making a decent livelihood, and joining them in advocating for immigration reform that includes both a path to citizenship and an improved H2A/temporary workforce program are part of what it means to celebrate local food.