Area Farmers Plan Meeting on Immigrant Labor Concern

The Recorder, March 31, 2017, by Richie Davis

Plowing season may be right around the corner for area farmers, but many are worried about farm laborers, most of whom they say are alarmed over immigration policies.

“The workers are terrified,” said Michael Docter of Winter Moon Roots Farm in Hadley. “They’re worried about driving between home and work, getting pulled over and not seeing their kids again at the end of the day. As far as farmers go, we’re almost as terrified.”

Farmers and small business owners around Franklin and Hampshire counties plan to gather April 8 from 2 to 4 p.m. at Plainville Farm in Hadley to write letters to government officials demanding immigration reform that some say they’ve been pushing for years.

The concern over loss of migrant workers who may be in the country illegally has been heightened by the new president’s more assertive moves to find and deport illegal immigrants.

“Even though these guys here are legal, statistically there’s a high percentage of them in agriculture who are not, and we could lose them, and at the wrong time of the year,” said Docter, an organizer of the meeting along with Plainville Farm’s Wally Cjakowski. “We depend on them to run our farms and bring our crops in. There’s not anybody else who can, or who will, do it. These guys know our operations inside out, they’re highly skilled and highly knowledgeable.”

Cjakowski, who hires about 40 mostly Mexican and Guatemalan workers in the peak of the season for about a month, in addition to about half a dozen Jamaican workers under the government’s H-2A program, said if the Trump administration pursues the “deportations they’re talking about, there won’t be a sufficient labor force to go around. Not even close.”

“We don’t know their status,” said the Hadley farmer. “We have paperwork on everyone — Social Security numbers, green cards and all that. But whether that will stand up to e-verify, I don’t know. There’s going to have to be a pathway to legality for folks. A lot of these folks haven’t just come into the country the last couple of months. They’ve been living here 10, 15, 20 years. I’ve watched their kids grow up.”

The government’s designated H-2A program for farm workers — with 459 jobs certified in Massachusetts in 2015 — allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs, but it’s deemed too restrictive by farmers, who have found immigrant populations in the general labor pool as good, hard workers.

Docter said he expects next week’s meeting to help raise awareness of a problem that’s not just about farmers and other businesses, but for the economy overall.

‘There’s no legal way for these guys to come here’

“The way the Trump administration’s defined it, it affects anybody who broke the law, which means coming here, basically,” he said. “There’s no legal way for these guys to come here. Members of Congress realize they’ve got to do something, and hopefully, we can push them into getting a path to citizenship for these guys. Our state needs to back us up on this and support its farmers and small businesses. … It’s our livelihood. We can’t afford to not have these guys show up tomorrow.”

Cjakowski emphasized that this is a serious problem not just for farms, but for small businesses — including the hotels and restaurants — and that these are people who have lived in the area for years.

“Quite honestly right now, they’re afraid,” he says. “And we’re concerned about having enough people to work on our farms and businesses as the year goes on. Financially, these people are huge for the local economy. Everybody’s paying income tax.”

Gary Gemme of Harvest Farm in Whately says that over the years, many farmers — including him — have pulled out of the H-2A visa program because it got “so difficult to use it, like they were purposely discouraging us. H-2A is a shadow of what it was.”

That federal program is used by New England apple orchards like Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain, requires growers to prepare applications, deal with bureaucratic hurdles and provide workers’ air transportation and inspected housing for set time periods. It has gotten smaller, turning more farmers to use immigrant workers who many say are willing to do hard physical labor — for planting, cultivating, irrigating, harvesting — for long hours, sometimes in bitter cold and extreme heat.

“Most orchards in New England probably wouldn’t be in business without H-2A,” said Pine Hill’s David Shearer, who hopes to hear at the end of next week whether the nine or so Jamaican workers — some have returned each September to mid-October harvest for more than three decades — will be approved for a program that’s gotten more bureaucratic and uncertain.

“They tell you (that) you have to hire any local people who are available,” Shearer says. “I haven’t had local people who are willing to work seven days a week, 10-hour days” for the harvest. “Five years ago, I had one guy. He lasted two days.”

Gemme, who hires nearly three dozen workers during the summer — two thirds of whom are Latino — as well as a smaller crew of Puerto Rican workers, says he’s had many of the same workers for years.

“The problem is that knee-jerk reaction that a pretty good segment of the U.S. population has, to ‘get them out of here,’ to just out-of-hand say, ‘Send them home,’ even though don’t have a clue as to why these people came here. If they were in their shoes, they’d have probably done the same thing. A lot say, ‘Let them come here legally,’ but the chances of getting a work visa from Mexico or Guatemala are essentially zero. People who say that don’t know what’s going on and don’t want to know.”

Farmers around here, he says, check workers’ Social Security numbers, permanent residence cards and other ID. Yet Gemme adds, “I don’t know how many are illegal, but I know a bunch probably are.”

Immigration agents, he says, are “on the doorstep. They’ve been around, not here in Valley, but they’ve been in Vermont and New York. It will split up Hispanic families and it stands a good chance of putting us out of business. I’m afraid somebody’s going to get hurt because farmers have so much on the line here, they’re becoming so frustrated with the stupidity and ignorance with what’s going on, somebody’s going to lose their patience. And you can’t mess around with these ICE guys.”

Prediction: No produce except machine-picked

He predicts that if every state required employers to enter information into the “e-file” central database, “There wouldn’t be any produce in any of the markets except what you could pick with a machine.”

Docter said he expects next week’s meeting to help raise awareness of a problem that’s not just about farmers and other businesses, but for the economy overall.

The Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation has been working with its national organization to help make the H-2A program more reliable and help offer immigrants in this country a “path to legality,” says deputy Executive Director Brad Mitchell.

Meanwhile, says Cajkowski, “Right now, the stars might just be aligned to get things done. They’re not any different from you and me. All they want to do is raise their families. It’s just like when our grandparents came over. This has been going on since the beginning of this country. I don’t see why it’s such a big deal now.”