Seasonal Farms, Immigrant Workers
Labor Shortage and Solutions
BY LEIGH VINCOLA / PHOTOS MICHAEL PIAZZA
At Carlson Orchards in Harvard, MA, Jamaican workers arrive in April and continue to come in through the harvest in the fall, making their temporary home on a New England apple orchard. When the heavy work of thinning, pruning and picking is complete, the roughly 20 workers board their return flight to Kingston to spend the winter with their families. Farm owner Frank Carlson has relied on a Jamaican workforce for 50 years.
This is a familiar story for many larger-scale New England farmers who lean heavily on immigrant labor. More often than not, immigrants are the ones in the fields, setting the pace for the rest of the crew, planting onions and hauling in loads of melons, apples and blueberries, season after season, year after year.
Local food is important for New Englanders, but finding local farm workers is almost impossible. Few are willing to do the hard fieldwork, and scrape together odd jobs and seasonal unemployment in the winter months. High school and college students don’t make the cut these days either. “We used to work from the day we got out of school till the day we went back; that just doesn’t happen anymore, says Chris Clegg, fifth-generation owner of Four Town Farm on the border of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
And so farmers turn to immigrants who are not only willing and reliable but come from agricultural and subsistence lifestyles. Farming is in their blood. They understand the rhythm of the seasons and that the chores don’t stop when it rains.
Immigrant workers arrive in New England in one of three ways: They are citizens or green card holders, undocumented or “ambiguously documented,” or they are here as part of the federal H-2A visa program. New England is historically home to a small percentage of the roughly 1.5 million undocumented workers in this country, the majority landing in the South and West. However, New England farmers often use the H-2A visa program. But pressures on H-2A and the current political climate are threatening this.
What Is An H-2A Visa?
The short answer is a very long and complicated process. In New England, immigrant workers are mostly Jamaicans and work mostly in orchards. Many New England growers like Frank Carlson, have been using the program for decades.
The process starts with a lot of paperwork as farm owners submit applications to the program 75 days before workers are needed. The paperwork is passed back and forth between the US Labor and State departments and the Department of Homeland Security, with the mandatory help of an outside agent. Once an application has been submitted, the farmer must advertise the jobs locally through approved outlets, confirming that no one in their area wants the work. The ads alone cost Carlson nearly $4,000 every season.
The federal and state departments then work with consulates in foreign countries to clear visa applications and send workers to the United States. H-2A visas are approved for seasonal employment only, and the farmer is required to provide transportation from the workers’ home country to the farm, adequate housing and labor conditions, and pay their state’s prevailing wage. In New England, this averages about $12 an hour.
The New England Apple Council acts as the agent for most H-2A applications in the region, assisting with the paperwork and filing process. The council has been doing this work since the 1960s, helping to develop strong ties between Jamaica and New England farmers. It is not uncommon for Jamaicans to return to the same farm season after season, learning to care deeply for the land and tightening the bond with farm families. At Carlson Orchards one worker is in his 42nd season. “He doesn’t move around like he used to, I mean neither do I...but I just can’t deny him work,” says Carlson.
Paperwork aside, it doesn’t sound that bad?
In many ways the program isn’t terrible; it provides needed employment and verification on both sides of the equation. But the three- to four-month process for H-2A requires a lot of patience, a lot of organization and plenty of available funds. If a farmer doesn’t have this combination, he or she may be out of luck.
“This isn’t cheap labor; it actually costs me a lot of money,” say Chip Hardy of Brookdale Fruit Farm in New Hampshire and Apple Council board member who has used the program for 30 years. With all the costs included, farmers estimate they are paying about $20 an hour.
But the biggest complaint about the program isn’t the money -- it’s the uncertainty. For months, farmers are dragged through red tape only to never be sure when and if their workers will arrive. Paperwork goes missing, applicants are denied because their work order is different than last year, or there just aren’t enough cogs in the wheel to push the process along. So things stall, and the farmer waits.
However, nature can’t wait on bureaucracy and planting and harvesting schedules don’t always line up with government spreadsheets. The rain and soil and sun dictate this cycle, not the Department of Homeland Security. Any farm owner knows this, as does any Jamaican field worker. It can mean the difference between saving and losing a crop.
In mid-May, a few days before their scheduled arrival, Mark Amato, farm manager at Verrill Farm in Concord, MA, wasn’t sure when or if his H-2A workers were going to show up. “Without the 12 Jamaicans I hire, the other 80 people that work here wouldn’t have a job,” he says.
Even in the highly regulated seasonal program, worker rights advocates say that labor and housing violations occur and workers keep their mouths shut for fear of being sent home. Once a worker is given a job order, its parameters are inflexible. Workers cannot leave, move to another farm, or extend their visa, regardless of circumstances. Abel Luna, an organizer for Migrant Justice in Vermont, doesn’t support the H-2A program. “Rights are supposed to protect workers, but they continue to fail us,” he says. “H-2A just reinforces that type of problem.”
The program has walked this line of function, inefficiency and injustice for several decades. But, while obviously flawed, the number of applications continues to rise. According to Frank Gasperini, National Council of Agricultural Employers president and CEO, there were 77,000 H-2A workers nationwide in 2015; that increased to 160,000 in 2016.
Then came 2017, and the anti-immigrant rhetoric that followed the Trump administration into office.
Flooded With Fear
Whether they are documented or not, anxiety is casting a shadow on immigrants as they face deportation or wrongful identification traveling to and from work and caring for their families. The outcome, says Hugh Joseph, Tufts University professor of Agriculture Food and Environment, is that sometimes “they [immigrants] will just disappear and stop showing up for work.”
A disappearing workforce threatens to put real pressure on the H-2A program. Visa requests have skyrocketed in 2017, with a 36% increase in the number of jobs approved, compared to the same period last year. By the end of the year, 250,000 H-2A workers are expected, the requests coming mostly from California, Georgia and Florida, the areas where other workers are disappearing the fastest.
It’s inevitable the program won’t be able to keep up with the demand. New England farmers are worried, seeing more delays, governmental mistakes, and other challenges. There is worry, too, that there will be less accountability for adequate working conditions and wages because the Trump Administration is cutting budgets of federal agencies that support workers rights. “The political environment makes workers more vulnerable,” says Luna, “and makes human rights violations more likely to happen because people are afraid.”
Farmers are very familiar with uncertainty, and they are also very resilient. However, usually farmers don’t have time to wrestle with immigration reform. “I don’t think I will see a solution in my lifetime,” says Jonathan Bishop, co-owner of 6th generation Bishop Orchard in Guilford, CT.
Organizations like the Agriculture Work Force Coalition are working at it. “Agriculture needs are different than other industries. This isn’t something the Department of Labor understands,” says Justin Darisse, coalition vice president of communications. The coalition is working toward citizenship for undocumented workers, revising the H-2A program to provide more flexibility and access for year-round needs, and slashing its administrative challenges. Although the agricultural community wants changes in H-2A, it’s also up to consumers to be part of that.
From the outside it is easy to believe that New England farms still survive on self-sufficiency. But without immigrants, the New England food system would break down. “We need them as much as they need us,” says Chris Clegg. It’s a symbiotic relationship that has been relied on for generations, but one that can easily go unnoticed by the public.
The public needs to understand that local food today doesn’t happen without foreign workers. We must understand the effect that immigration reform has on our food system, celebrate the farmers that have been making the best use of the H-2A program, demand more transparency from ones that have not, and honor small- and medium-sized farms that pay living wages. As consumers of local food, we have the choice to be advocates for workers as well as farmers. They cannot be invisible, because without them, no one eats.