Farmworkers’ Immense Contributions to New England’s Apple Farms
It takes many hands to tend, harvest and pack the fruits and vegetables that supply Northeast kitchens — including the beautiful and delicious array of apples we enjoy this time of year. Orchards and farms depend on skilled, reliable employees both for year-round farm work and for the extra hours needed during harvest seasons. Small and mid-sized farms rely on both local and guest-worker farmworkers to fill this essential need and ensure they can continue to meet rigorous ecological standards. This fall, we are celebrating the apple farmers and farmworkers who provide us fresh, sustainably harvested apples and who contribute to a thriving regional farm system.
The History of Farmworkers in New England
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. Americans’ firsthand experience with agriculture has declined steeply over time, and the reality of seasonal work provides a variety of challenges. As a result, the essential work of bringing fresh produce to our tables is done mostly by people from other countries. Those people come to the United States either temporarily or to stay and make a life.
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. For apple growers, the extra labor is most often needed during fall harvest. 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 U.S. is the H2A federal guest worker program. Despite serious flaws, this program has a crucial role that most people never see.
Farms throughout the region rely on workers who come to the U.S. 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. H2A crews from Jamaica, especially, have been the lifeblood of the apple harvest across the Northeast for more than 60 years.
The H2A Program for Farmworkers: One Solution to a Complex Problem
The H2A guest worker program is one of several programs (another was the Bracero program in the 1940s and again in the ’60 and ’70s) that historically attempted to provide a functional way for agricultural workers to come into the U.S. 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. One of the clearest indicators of the scarcity of farm labor is in the fact that the number of H2A positions requested and approved has increased more than fivefold in the past 15 years, from just over 48,000 positions certified in 2005 to just over 275,000 in 2020. The average duration of an H2A certification in 2020 was 5.6 months, implying that the 275,000 positions certified represented approximately 127,000 full-year equivalents.
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 three 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. For apple farmers, this means that H2A applications have to be completed before blossoms have set in early spring for the migrant farmworkers they need to hire during the fall harvest season. 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 comes 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.
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.
Although there are proposals to change the pay requirements of the program, currently age levels are set based on a formula that varies by state. H2A wages in 2020 in the Northeast were set at $14.78 per hour, 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 U.S. workers.
Meet Albert and Herman: 30-year New England Farmworkers
Albert, an H2A employee from Jamaica, has been coming to the same orchard in Connecticut for 30 years. Herman, the crew boss, has worked here for more than 30 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 whom they know from back home, in a house tucked among the apple, plum and peach trees on the orchard property. Some stay for four to five months, some as long as 10, the maximum stay allowed by the program. Like Albert, 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 U.S. 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.”
Albert, the Jamaican worker at the orchard in Connecticut, is matter-of-fact.“This country was built on migrant labor. Who’s going to farm if we don’t?”
Celebrate Local Foods By Honoring Farmworkers
Seasonal farmworkers make up a critical part of the farm ecosystem, including here in the Northeast on apple farms and orchards. There is still a lot of work to be done to reform programs to ensure they provide farmers with the skilled labor they need and provide employees with equitable work conditions. At Red Tomato, we work to increase recognition of who is doing the work to grow and produce our food, supporting both the workers and farmers in making a livelihood and joining them in advocating for immigration reform that includes both a path to citizenship for local workers who have immigrated from other countries, and an improved H2A/temporary workforce program for short-term work. We believe celebrating local food includes honoring the history and contributions of all who are part of the workforce.