Rep. Neal Hears Farmers’ Concerns

The Recorder, October 25, 2016, by Diane Broncaccio

COLRAIN — While this year’s apple harvest is in full swing, Pine Hill Orchard’s David Shearer is already applying to the federal government for permission to bring his crew of migrant farmworkers back for next year’s apple harvest.

“Right now, we have nine Jamaicans here,” said Shearer. “Two have picked apples for us for 38 years. In the last two or three years, we haven’t had anyone apply locally to pick apples.”

Shearer said the short harvest season requires a crew that can work eight to 10 hours a day from Sept. 1 until “about now.”

But the complex application process for the H-2A “Temporary Agricultural Employment” of aliens, under the Immigration and Nationality Act, requires a lot of advance paperwork — even before the farmer knows how abundant the crop will be and how many workers he will need.

“They’ve been working on streamlining this for 30 years, but it never happens,” says Shearer, “because it always gets tied to an immigration bill. We would like to be able to get (migrant workers) when we need them. But we need to make arrangement to get them in February — before we even have a crop.”

“The Department of Labor has a lot to do with rules and regulations,” said Shearer. “Crop insurance is getting pretty expensive — they keep throwing in new rules and regulations. They pay out less, and we pay more and more.”

Tuesday morning, Shearer raised these issues as he escorted Congressman Richard Neal through the orchards, to show him a new irrigation system, purchased with the help of a low-interest federal Farm Service Agency loan that has enabled the orchard to plant more trees, to grow Arkansas black apples that are used in making hard cider. He also took Neal into a new apple cooler, also bought with a farm loan, where the crop is stored for cider makers.

Pine Hill was one of five Franklin County farms and orchards Neal toured Tuesday, while meeting with farmers and hearing their concerns.

When asked what farmers were talking about, Neal said: “The drought, milk prices — and it’s hard to convince succeeding generations to stay in the business.”

Neal said that in central Massachusetts, for instance, succeeding generations wanted to subdivide their farmland for homes instead of farming.

He said the interest in agriculture, and in the quality and quantity of food, is growing. “We want to be able to help them (farmers) with low-interest USDA loans. There are a lot of geographic political issues now.”

The tour of Pine Hill Orchard included a visit by Soham Bhatt, co-founder of Artifact Cider Project, which has its raw cider pulp made at Pine Hill Orchards from local apples.

Artifact Cider Project, based in Springfield, made 500 gallons in its first year “as a tiny garage operation,” he said.

“Last year, we made 15,000 gallons,” said Bhatt. “Our big thing is, we don’t want to outgrow the quality of the fruit from Pine Hill Orchards. It’s all about expressing the quality of the orchard. There is always pressure to outgrow,” he said.

Artifact Cider Project ciders are now sold throughout the entire Interstate 91 belt, central Massachusetts and greater Boston, as well as at Pine Hill.

But when Artifact was starting out, Neal helped the company with legislation that exempted businesses with a Farm Winery license from being required to go through a wholesale distributor.

“To use a distributor would have potentially put them out of business — because they couldn’t have afforded to use one,” said an aide to Neal.

Neal also visited Breezy-Knoll Farm in Leyden, Apex Orchards and Maple Row Farm in Shelburne Falls, and Sidehill Farm in Hawley.