Posted June 11th 2012 at 8:03 am by
in Profiles

Bittersweet Harvest at the Farmers' Market

“I’m not an office farmer. I’m a farmer farmer,” said Carl Hills. His farm was buried under so much immigration paperwork this winter, he questioned how long he’d be able to keep the place going.

Kimball’s Fruit Farm straddles the wealthy towns of Pepperell, Mass. and Hollis, N.H.  The farm grows strawberries, blueberries, heirloom tomatoes, corn, peaches, and apples on 140 pristine acres that Hills’ family has farmed since the 1930s. Hills brings his bounty to 13 farmers’ markets a week in and around Cambridge, and employs about 30 people per season to make it all happen.

A Bittersweet Harvest at the Farmer's Market

Kimball’s Fruit Farm.

His best employees are Jamaican men who live on his farm during growing season, May through November, and return home to their wives and children when it ends. Leabert Thompson of Clarendon Parish is one of four Jamaican farmers at Kimball’s so far this year. Thompson first came to work at Kimball’s in 1985, and has returned every spring since then. “In Jamaica, work is very slow down there,” he said. “We come here, we work, we go back home to our families, and they are happy too.”

Over 1,500 Jamaicans lived and worked in New England in 2011, about 500 of them in Massachusetts. They come through the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program. This program and earlier versions of it have been bringing Jamaicans to American farms every summer for over 60 years. But in the face of a recession, the Obama administration has put a strong emphasis on giving jobs to American workers, including farm workers. Increased restrictions on H-2A have made it harder for Kimball’s and other small farms to hire their best employees.

This year, the Department of Labor in Boston rejected Kimball’s first H-2A application because he’d forgotten to write down the request year (2012) on one line of the form, and because the department wanted more details on the specifics of tomato harvesting from him. Hills submitted his application about three weeks before the deadline, so he was able to make changes and resubmit on time. If not for that, he would have suffered a two-week delay in welcoming his first group of employees. H-2A workers are only allowed to arrive on the first and fifteenth of each month.

When crops are ripe, a two-week delay can be devastating for a farm. Peak season for staple crops like strawberries and corn may only last a few weeks in New England. Customers come to farmers’ markets eager to buy the fresh food they won’t have access to all winter. If a farm doesn’t have the labor to harvest its fruits and vegetables on time – food it has been nurturing for months – the stuff dies on the vine before it can be sold.

A Bittersweet Harvest at the Farmer's Market

Lettuce growing at Kimball’s Fruit Farm.

Though Hills himself has been a farmworker for his entire adult life, he says that American workers are no substitute for his Jamaican employees.  The H2-A program requires him to advertise for American labor both locally and in states with similar crops, and to hire anyone who applies. This year Hills had to spend nearly $800.00 placing ads for workers in Florida, Texas, and Vermont.  He got almost no response.  “I don’t know how many times we’ve put up a flyer for working here and no one showed up,” said Hills. The American workers who do apply almost uniformly quit after less than one week. “A lot of people don’t like to get their hands too dirty,” said Thompson, with a hint of disdain in his voice. Other farms report the same pattern. And on a national scale, many farms that don’t get workers through H2-A turn to undocumented immigrants rather than Americans.

The H-2A visa program is a little known but critical piece of the massive United States immigration system. Jamaicans have been working on U.S. farms under programs agreed upon by both nations’ governments since 1943, when many American men were overseas fighting World War II. Guest workers from the Bahamas started coming to the American South earlier than that. Caribbean workers came to be labeled “H2” under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and were later divided in to H2-A (agriculture) and H2-B (non-agriculture). Now H2-A includes nearly 60 countries.

H-2A offers no formal path to citizenship. Its participants, though they are doing difficult physical work, have no local health care. They have no guarantee of work from one year to the next. They have to leave their families for months in a row. And both employees and employers are at the whim of a stringent government immigration program in which their natural talents and abilities often mean little.

Meanwhile, with the money they make in a New England growing season ($10.56 an hour – a government-set wage), Jamaican men can support their families. School is not free there, and each of the men at Kimball’s has between two and four kids. Even with their American income, they all work during the winter, and their wives also work to fill in the gaps.  “I don’t like things free, you know?” said Thompson. “That’s the way I live. I like to sweat for what I have.” The line of Jamaicans trying to get a visa to work on American farms is very long.

But a scenario in which people from one country are laboring in another country presents huge and obvious pitfalls. The first foreign farm workers in the United States were slaves. Other people have come to the U.S. as indentured servants. Today, undocumented workers on American farms accept worse pay and worse conditions than their H2-A-authorized counterparts. Even the history of formal American guest worker programs contains more ugly spots than bright ones.

Does a highly regulated program like H-2A hurt or help workers? It seems grossly unfair that a man like Thompson, who has been a faithful and gifted worker for one company since 1985, has no job security from season to season, no American health benefits despite the risks he faces, and could lose his job altogether if the government decided to cut or limit H-2A. On the flip side, who would protect labor standards for foreign workers if not the government? Furthermore, how can a nation’s own citizens organize for fair labor standards if a parade of foreign workers accepts worse conditions or worse pay?

Down at the level of one little farm, a policy becomes a tangle of human relations. Hills and Thompson are about the same age, but the former sometimes calls the latter “Grandpa,” which makes the younger Jamaican men chuckle. And when I asked Thompson whether he sees American tourists down in Jamaica, he said, “Yep. Like my boss. He’s down there every year.”

Hills and his wife Marie have been spending winters in Jamaica for eight years now. “I know all their families. I’ve been to their funerals,” he said. “I’m working for the school down there in one of the towns – putting in toilets and doing repairs.” This spring, the Hills’ daughter got married in Jamaica. All of their Jamaican employees attended the wedding.

Other New England farm owners report similar relationships. Hills lamented that the Jamaicans get more dinner invitations in one summer than he gets year round. Locals usually prepare jerk chicken for their Jamaican guests when they get a yes. Often, however, the Jamaican men on Kimball’s Farm turn down dinner invites in favor of squeezing in a few extra hours of work.

When I asked Thompson whether he liked living in two countries, he returned with a question for me: “Have you ever been out of this country? Would you want to work in a different country from America?”

I didn’t hesitate: “Yes, I would.”

“Ok,” said Thompson. “That’s what I am trying to explain to you.”

Post and photos by Alexa Mills.

To learn more about temporary Jamaican workers in the United States, read No Man’s Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History of Deportable Labor.

Find Kimball’s produce at farmers’ markets in Boston Dewey Square, Cambridge Central Square and Charles Square, Cambridgeport, Arlington, Belmont, Brookline, Newton, and Somerville.

One response to “Bittersweet Harvest at the Farmers' Market”

  1. Liz Rosenbaum says:

    So interesting! I had no idea there was such a complex labor issue behind the delicious farmer’s market produce in Massachusetts. There is so much media coverage about Latin American migrant workers—thank you for illuminating that there are similar issues for people from other regions as well.