County farm jobs usually filled by immigrants

The Recorder, September 9, 2017, by Diane Broncaccio

The apples are ripening and Lloyd Coke will soon be working through the peak of the season at Apex Orchards. From now through mid-November, Coke will be picking and packing peaches, then apples. He may also be thinning and pruning the fruit trees on this family-owned farm, which has been in existence since 1828.

Coke has done just about every job possible at Apex Orchards, according to owner Tim Smith. Most of Coke’s workdays run from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. — a good day’s work for a man of 73 years — but it’s a job that Coke has been coming to for 42 years.

When it’s not the growing season in Shelburne, Coke is home in Jamaica, taking care of his own family farm. Coke has a wife, five children and 10 grandchildren, he said. He, his brother, and their families raise potatoes, pumpkins, zucchini and corn.

When asked why he has come to Shelburne to farm for so many years, Coke says, “I like the work. Me and my boss-man get on very well,” he says, gesturing toward Smith. “We come here by the government, and we can get a couple dollars to bring back home. In Jamaica, jobs are kind of scarce.”

Like other migrant farm workers who come to Franklin County through the H-2A visa program, Coke earns $12.38 per hour — a wage set by the U.S. Department of Labor for this kind of work.

But every U.S. dollar is now worth about 22 Jamaican dollars, according to the latest exchange rate, he said. In Jamaica, comparable laborers would get the equivalent of $227 U.S. dollars for a 40-hour work week — if they can get a 40-hour-week job, he said. For 40 hours of farm labor in Massachusetts, that same worker get about $495 per week in gross wages.

“I have grandchildren going to school right now,” said Coke. The money he earns in Shelburne “helps with schooling for the children,” he says. “And it puts something in the pot.”

“We don’t regret coming,” he said. “My son picks apples in Ontario (Canada). Maybe some day one of my sons will come up here, too.”

“We like the farming,” he says. “We do it back home. Somebody has to do it, anyway.”

But, over time, that “somebody” is less likely to be an American farm worker — even though, by law, farmers must advertise their seasonal farm labor jobs in local newspapers before they can look for legal foreign labor through the H-2A visa program.

Some local farmers say they can’t find enough local people to do the manual labor on a seasonal basis.

Many migrant farm workers come to Franklin County to pick crops through the government visa program, but the first step farm owners must take in finding seasonal employees is to look for local workers first, says Patricia Crosby, executive director of the Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board.

The 30-year-old H-2A visa program for farm workers requires farm owners to first advertise the available positions in local newspapers, with the applicants to apply to the Franklin Hampshire Career Center, as a way to ensure that food producers have reached out to local workers. The postings come through the Career Center, says Crosby, but few people apply for them.

Why not? “It’s very demanding work, long hours in all weather,” Crosby said.

For instance, job listings from the Career Center in late August included eight listings for farm workers and crop laborers in several towns, including Sunderland, Ashfield, Colrain, and Shelburne. These jobs pay $12.38 per hour, and the employer pays for housing, meals and transportation, provided the workers stay for the full time of their contracts.

“These are typical of the postings the Career Center gets,” said Crosby. “(But) the Career Center rarely gets anyone applying for them.”

One local newspaper ad for orchard workers gave the following job description: Plant, cultivate, and harvest various crops, such as, but not limited to vegetables, fruit, horticultural specialties and field crops. Use hand tools such as … shovels, hoes, pruning shears, saws, knives and ladders. Duties may include, but not limited to, tilling soil, apply fertilizer, thinning, pruning, apply pesticides, picking, cutting, cleaning, sorting, processing, packing and handling harvested products. May operate machinery and do repair work. Pressing cider on the farm. Work is usually performed outdoors, sometimes under hot and cold conditions. Workers are required to bend, lift and carry up to 50 pounds regularly. Duties may require off ground heights up to 20 feet, using ladders. One month experience is required in work listed.

This year, all of Apex Orchards’ seasonal workers are from Jamaica, Smith said. “This year, all are from abroad. We had no response to our ad.”

Chip Hager, of Hager’s Farm Market, said there aren’t enough local people willing to do the work no matter how high the unemployment rate is. “People don’t want to do the kind of work that farmers need done,” said Hager. “It’s not an easy job. There’s not that many people — and it’s been that way for a lot of years. That’s why so many families hire Jamaicans. That’s why Mexicans and other people are here. They’re willing to take these jobs that (local) people don’t want to do — regardless of how much unemployment there is. It’s a shame that the system can’t be set up to encourage people to take these harvest jobs,” he said.

Hager said his family’s orchard and farm doesn’t have any migrant workers. “We just have local people, at this point, but I don’t have enough. I wish we could find more people willing to do the job,” he said.

Lori Shearer of K&L Growers in Colrain said the farm that she and her husband, Ken Shearer, operate hasn’t hired migrant farm workers, but she knows how hard it is to keep local temporary employees on for a whole season. Two years ago, she said, K&L Growers took on agricultural student interns for the growing season.

“What we found was, everybody was gung-ho from April through June, then started taking off during the peak season,” she said. She said she put up a board listing all the daily chores that needed to be done, and one student was surprised that all the chores listed were expected to be done each day. “Even someone well trained in academic aspects of farming had no idea of what it’s like to be here from day to day. They found the work very challenging.”

This year, 94 temporary farm workers were placed in Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties through the H-2A program, according to Kristen Wilmer of CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). Of those, 42 are working on Franklin County farms.