Immigrant Workers and the Seasonal Farms of New England
The Challenge of Labor and Reform and the Realities of the Local Food Economy
At Carlson Orchards in Harvard, Massachusetts, workers arrive from Jamaica in April and continue arriving 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, Jamaica, 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 to keep their operations moving. 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 farmworkers is almost impossible. There are few that sustain a willingness to do the hard fieldwork, scraping together odd jobs and seasonal unemployment in the winter months. And high school and college students don’t fill those employment needs these days either.
“We used to work from the day we got out of school until the day we went back,” says Chris Clegg, fifth-generation owner of Four Town Farm on the border of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. “That just doesn’t happen anymore. They’re good kids; I just can’t rely on them for the season.”
And so farm owners turn to immigrants who are just the opposite—willing and incredibly reliable with an intuitive knowledge of farm work. They come from agricultural and subsistence lifestyles; farming is in their blood and they understand the rhythm of the season and that the to-do list doesn’t go away just because the sun does.
Immigrants arrive on New England farms in one of several ways. They are either citizens or green card holders, undocumented or “ambiguously documented,” or 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. Our farmers do, however, make decent use of the H-2A work visa program.
What is an H-2A Visa?
The short answer: It is a very long and complicated process involving an absurd amount of bureaucracy that eventually gets workers housed and employed on farms. In New England they are mostly Jamaicans and most, but not all, work in orchards. Many New England growers like Frank Carlson have been using the program for decades.
Does it work?
Kind of. The process starts with a lot of paperwork as farm owners submit applications to the program 75 days before (not earlier) the workers are needed. The paperwork is passed back and forth between the U.S. Department of Labor, Department of State and 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 to do the work, before continuing with the process. These advertisements alone cost Frank Carlson nearly $4,000 every season.
These agencies 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 their home country to the farm, provide 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. They’ve 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 of 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, is H-2A that bad?
In many ways, the program isn’t terrible; it provides employees and employers what’s needed. But H-2A visas are a long way from perfect; right now, it’s the only legal way to go about it. The three- to four-month process requires a great deal of patience, organizational skills and plenty of available funds. If you don’t have this combination on hand, you may be out of luck.
“This isn’t cheap labor; it actually costs me a lot of money,” says Chip Hardy of Brookdale Fruit Farm in New Hampshire and an Apple Council board member who has made use of the program for 30 years. Considering the added costs included, farmers estimate they are paying about $20 an hour for each worker with an H-2A visa.
The biggest complaint about the program isn’t the money; it’s the uncertainty. For months farmers are dragged through red tape and are never quite sure if and when their laborers will arrive to work. Paperwork goes missing, applicants are denied because their work order is different than last year and there just aren’t enough cogs in the wheel to push the process along. So the process stalls and the farmer waits.
Mother Nature can’t wait on bureaucratic holdups and planting schedules don’t always line up with government spreadsheets when it’s time to plant or harvest on the farm. Temperatures, daylight, sun, soil and rain dictate this cycle, not the Department of Homeland Security. Any farm owner knows this, as does any Jamaican field worker, but there is a disconnect between the rhythm of the season and system of labor that neither can control. If the hands aren’t there to do the work it can mean the difference between saving and losing a crop.
In mid-May, a few days before the foreign workers’ supposed arrival, Mark Amato, farm manager at Verill Farm in Concord, Massachusetts, wasn’t sure if or when his workers were going to show up. “Without the 12 Jamaicans I hire, the other 80 people who work here wouldn’t have a job,” he says.
None of this means anything to dairy farmers, though, who because of their year-round industry, are excluded from the seasonal H-2A program. Their exclusion leaves dairy farmers, already on the brink of extinction, and their workers the most vulnerable to labor challenges and workers’ rights violations, so farmers must often rely on the undocumented to do the work.
Worker advocates say that, despite the highly regulated system, labor and housing violations still happen and workers keep their mouths shut for fear of being sent home. Once workers are given a job order, its parameters are inflexible. They cannot leave, move to another farm or extend their visa regardless of the circumstance. 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. H-2A just reinforces that type of problem,” he says.
The program has teetered on the line of function, inefficiency and injustice for several decades. Moreover, while the program is obviously flawed, the number of applications continues to rise. According to Frank Gasperini, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, in 2015 there were 77,000 H-2A workers nationwide, which increased to 160,000 in 2016. Then came 2017, and the anti-immigrant rhetoric that carried the Trump Administration into office.
Flooded with fear
Anxiety is casting a shadow on immigrants, documented or not, as they face deportation or wrongful identification by moving about their lives, 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 immigrants “will just disappear and stop showing up for work.”
A disappearing workforce threatens to put real pressure on the H-2A program and we are already seeing its effects. The 2017 numbers are in and visa requests have skyrocketed with a 36% increase in the number of jobs approved during the same time last year. By the end of the year 250,000 H-2A workers are expected, with the requests coming mostly from areas where workers are disappearing the fastest (California, Georgia and Florida), further taxing an already broken system.
It’s inevitable that the program won’t be able to keep up with the demand and New England farmers, who have been at this for decades, are worried. They see more delays, mistakes by the involved government agencies and more unnecessary challenges coming at them in the near future.
There is worry too, that as the program is further overloaded there will be less and less accountability for working conditions and wages. At the same time the Trump Administration is cutting back the budgets of the federal agencies that support workers rights. “The political environment makes workers more vulnerable and makes human rights violations more likely to happen because people are afraid,” says Luna.
It’s time for reform
Farmers are very familiar with uncertainty; it comes with their job. And because of this they are also very resilient, problem-solving 24 hours a day. Most often, farmers don’t have the time to wrestle with immigration reform. “I don’t think I will see a solution in my lifetime,” says Jonathan Bishop, co-owner of sixth-generation Bishop Orchard in Guilford, Connecticut.
Organizations like the Agriculture Work Force Coalition do have the time and are working hard at it.
“Agriculture needs are different than other industries. This isn’t something the Department of Labor understands,” says Justin Darisse, the Agriculture Work Force Coalition’s vice president of communications. The Coalition is working towards citizenship for undocumented agriculture workers, revising the H-2A program to provide more flexibility and access for year-round needs and slashing its administrative challenges. These are changes everyone in the agriculture community wants to see but it’s also up to us as consumers to be part of that.
From the outside it is easy to believe that New England farms still survive on self-sufficiency, tucked up in our secluded northern corner of the country. But just like California, the New England food system would break down without immigrants.
“We need them as much as they need us,” says 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 start noticing. We must understand that local food today doesn’t happen without foreign workers. We must understand the effect immigration reform has on our food system, celebrate the farmers who have been making the best use of the H-2A program, demand more transparency from the ones who 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 not only for our farmers but their workers as well. They cannot remain invisible because without them, no one eats.
To learn what you can do to encourage meaningful immigration reform, visit AGWorkforceCoalition.org.