The Season's Fresh Crop

PHOTOS BY ADAM DETOUR

On an unseasonably warm morning in April, the peach trees at Davidian Bros. Farm in Northborough are blooming and waiting to be pruned. Brush in the apple orchard still has to be collected. And plants in the greenhouse need tending before they can be transferred to the fields. But the workers who perform these tasks have yet to arrive from Jamaica, held up by paperwork.

The delay does not dim co-owner Ed Davidian’s enthusiasm for the program that allows him to hire workers from other countries to do essential work he can’t find local residents to do. Like many farms in the area, Davidian and his brother, David, take advantage of the H-2A visa program, which allows U.S. employers to hire foreign agricultural workers to fill seasonal jobs. Managed by the U.S. Department of Labor, Citizenship and Immigration Services (part of Homeland Security), and the Department of State, the program is open to citizens of 85 countries. It was started during World War II and incorporated into immigration law in 1952.

“There’s so much common ground around what people need in labor, everybody in agriculture feels the immigration policy has broken down,” says Susan Futrell, director of market ing at Red Tomato, a nonprofit produce distributor that works directly with farmers. “ The guest worker program is the only legal way to get workers.”

The program is not without its detractors. A report written by Farmworker Justice in 2011 cited multiple abuses and claimed it hurts both foreign and domestic farmworkers. More recently, with the issues of immigration and foreign labor at the forefront of so many discussions, it has been mischaracterized as sanctioned cheap labor. Undoubtedly there have been abuses; there may still be. But in the Greater Boston area it is a lifeline for small family-owned farms, many of which have relied on at least a handful of the same workers for the last 10 to 30 years.

“The H-2A program is not for cheap labor,” says Davidian, who is president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation. “It’s good, experienced labor and we don’t have to babysit them. Because I have those six [Jamaican workers], I employ 50 in the store. Nobody will work out here in the field.” But farmers aren’t the only beneficiaries. Davidian tells of one seasonal employee who, with the money he has earned working at the Northborough farm, built a four-bedroom house for his extended family in Jamaica and has paid to educate his children there.

Following all of the procedures and regulations of the program is complicated and expensive for employers. Every year they have to file a new job order with the state 75 days before they want the first workers to arrive. If it’s accepted, the state forwards the application to the Chicago National Processing Center. Once that office accepts the application, the growers have to advertise the job domestically. If any U.S. citizens are interested, growers are required to interview them. If the positions haven’t been filled 30 days before workers are needed, growers are allowed to post the applications abroad.

According to Charlie Pearce, communications director at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, in 2016 the state processed 116 H-2A-related job orders, which accounted for 429 foreign workers. As of early April there had been 44 orders for 102 workers, but Pearce says in an email that he expects the 2017 numbers to be comparable to last year. In Massachusetts, roughly 95% of the workers come from Jamaica and 5% come from Mexico.

Employers are responsible for all of the workers’ visa and travel fees and must provide their housing when they are here (there are strict requirements and the state conducts spot inspections throughout the season). Most farmers have built houses in or near the fields. (If they hired women they would have to provide separate housing.) Workers’ pay is determined by the federal government. This year it is $12.38 per hour, more than $5 above minimum wage.

New England’s apple growers were the first to use imported labor—first from Canada and Ireland, then Jamaica—in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today many of the area’s farms work with the New England Apple Council, a New Hampshire–based nonprofit, grower-owned organization, to navigate the H-2A program for them. Joe Young, executive director, says, “It’s not a simple process. The government throws up as many roadblocks as it can.” Growers pay the council a fee on top of all the other expenses they incur.

Dave Volante, a member of the fourth generation running Volante Farms in Needham, says his family has worked with the New England Apple Council to hire agricultural workers from Jamaica for about 30 years. “I’m always concerned [about whether workers will be allowed in] because it’s a system that’s changing constantly. Bureaucratically, it’s a moving target,” he says. “My level of concern isn’t any different under the current administration. Immigration is tough to navigate. The Apple Council can navigate the changes. They have experience.”

When we met in mid-April Davidian was philosophical about the delay in his workers’ arrival. “Everybody is concerned about undocumented workers, so people who haven’t used the program are using it. That’s causing more stress on the program,” he says. Which isn’t to say there weren’t slowdowns before the current administration was in office. Genevieve Stillman, of Stillman Farms in New Braintree, says last season her farm’s imported workers—many who have been coming for 25 years—all arrived a month late because the government added an extra step in the process.

EXTENDED FAMILY
In 1981 Davidian and his brother took over the nearly 100-year-old farm their grandfather founded and their father inherited from him. They began hiring Jamaican workers in the mid-1980s, after they had purchased and annexed two neighboring farms that brought their total acreage to 250 (150 of it farmable). A couple of the six Jamaican men working there now have been coming since the beginning; all have been returning for several years. “They’re very good people,” he says.

The Apple Council’s Young says 99% of growers hire the same workers year after year. Most of the Jamaican work force at Dick’s Market Garden in Lunenberg has been coming for 10 to 15 years (two longer-term employees now have green cards). “It takes about two years to really learn our system,” says Steve Violette, the farm’s second-generation owner. “They give you a core base that enables a farm to grow a crop and create other jobs.”

In the summer, Dick’s employs students on the farm and at their multiple farmers market locations. But for the bulk of the season the Jamaican workers share field duties with family members. “We have perishable crops. We’re a seasonal business. It’s hard to keep somebody employed when they know they’re going to be laid off [for] three months of the year,” says Violette.

At Ward’s Berry Farm, in Sharon, co-owner Jim Ward says he experiences very little turnover in his 10-man Jamaican crew from one year to the next. He turned to the H-2A program about 20 years ago because, “We were having difficulty maintaining a workforce through September,” he says. “It’s a frustrating situation. In a realistic setting, it’s hard to find U.S. workers who are happy to pick beans for hours on end for a few months and have no work for the winter.”

Ward and his brother, Bob, have been running the 180-acre farm since 1985 when their father, who started it in 1981, passed away. With a full-service farm store, the Wards hire lots of local seasonal workers, with a peak of 70 people on the payroll in mid summer. But all the students are gone by September, leaving fields full of crops to harvest. Says Ward, “I do consider [the visa program] essential. We’ve become dependent on this harvest crew. We’d be hard-pressed to replace them.”

“Farming in New England is not simple, because of the diversity of what we do,” says Stillman, whose farm grows 150 crops, all of which are planted and harvested differently, by hand. “Not a lot of Americans want these jobs,” she says. “We can hire college kids but they have to go back to school at the end of August.”

The farm rehires the same people from Jamaica year after year because once they have been trained, “They know how to do everything. We end up with family units, in a way,” Stillman says, as many men eventually bring their sons. “They’re part of our family.”

THE FUTURE?
For now, says Davidian, “The program is working. It’s cumbersome. It could be streamlined or improved, replaced with something better.” He describes a hypothetical program that would give workers multiyear visas allowing them to work for a contract, or at will; allowing them to come and work for anyone in agriculture, not just a single employer who submits a job order; one that would allow for a change of status for experienced workers who are in the. U.S. undocumented, enabling them to remain in the country and work . “We’re working on that through the American Farm Bureau,” he says.

“I’m not concerned that they would cap [the H-2A program]. We’re proving no one else wants the jobs,” he says. But with the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, he is also working for change that will add flexibility to the program and, he says, “make it so these people who want to work here can do it legally. The people who are working illegally are the ones being taken advantage of.”

“Given the current environment in Washington, I don’t have any idea what to expect,” says Young. “I don’t think they understand what they’re doing, how their policies may affect H-2A workers and beyond.” 

Dave Volante remains vigilant, hoping the program will continue to function smoothly. “The alternative is I don’t get things planted or harvested because I don’t have the labor force around here.” Without imported labor, he says he would have to “shrink what we do in the field [or] grow only what we can harvest mechanically.”

Cautions Davidian, “We’re either going to import our labor or we’re going to import our food.” 

Andrea Pyenson writes about food and travel and always makes sure to have a healthy supply of high quality chocolate on hand. She can be reached at apyenson@gmail.com.