NEW YORK TIMES

October 5, 2017

 

The Jamaican Apple Pickers of Upstate New York

 

Visiting under the H-2A program, which brings temporary agricultural labor to the U.S., Jamaicans have worked in New York orchards since World War II.

 

By Tik Root

 

Seth Forrence is the fourth-generation manager of his family’s apple farm, Forrence Orchards, in Peru, N.Y. He is only 41, but the business, he said, has changed drastically during his lifetime. Traditional varieties like McIntosh and Cortland are slowly giving way to the sweetness of Honeycrisp and SnapDragon, and the trees are getting smaller; up to 1,200 can be packed into one acre. But there has been one constant during his time on the farm: the Jamaicans.

At the orchard on a recent afternoon, a white 15-passenger van pulled up. The foreman, James Spence, who goes by Jimmy, got out, followed by another dozen Jamaican men of all ages. Dressed in long-sleeve shirts and pants, the unseasonably warm weather didn’t seem to be an issue. They said it reminded them of Jamaica.

Joking with one another in a mix of English and Patois, the Jamaicans grabbed aluminum ladders from a nearby trailer, slung buckets around their necks and headed for the trees. “Get them red, get them big, no drops, no bruises,” Jimmy said. “O.K.?” Not that they needed the reminder. All the men were experienced pickers – they’ve been coming back for years, some of them decades.

“They’re part of the family,” said Mr. Forrence, who remembers having a Jamaican babysitter as a child. “Jimmy has been with the family for 31 years.” Jimmy corrected him: “32.”

New York is the second-largest apple-producing state in the country (the first is Washington State), churning out more than one billion pounds of fruit each year, according to the New York Apple Association. Weekenders looking to frolic in the orchards on a beautiful fall afternoon barely put a dent into such a bounty.

To complete the harvest within the narrow picking window (late August through October, weather depending), orchards hire thousands of foreign workers, including hundreds from Jamaica. It’s a practice that stretches back more than 70 years in the region, and to the 1970s at Forrence Orchards. The workers come under the H-2A program, which brings temporary agricultural labor to the United States. For this year’s apple season, the Forrences hired 185 Jamaicans, split into about a dozen crews.

H-2A workers in New York make $12.38 per hour, minus federal and state taxes. The Federal Department of Labor sets the rate, which is higher than the current state minimum wage ($11) and much more than what most of them can make in Jamaica, where many work as carpenters, taxi drivers and farmers.

At the end of the season, many of the men also ship 55-gallon drums of goods back home to either use or sell. They get free housing at the orchard, and the Forrences run two commissaries with Jamaican chefs that serve three meals a day for $12.07. Wednesday is jerk chicken day.

It’s a decent living, said Neville Gray, 59, who’s been coming since 1988. “You take it back in your pocket, it’s yours.” Many Jamaicans want their relatives or friends to join them. “I’d like to get my kid in,” Mr. Gray said. But open spots are rare. People only really leave when they find longer gigs at other farms, or they retire.

Workers at Forrence Orchards are selected through the Jamaican Ministry of Labor, approved by the U.S. government and issued visas at the American Embassy in Kingston. Then they travel: first to Fort Lauderdale by plane, and next to New York by bus.

Once they arrive, the picking begins.

From 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., they work, with a quick break for lunch. Although they are allowed to take Sundays off, almost no one does. The only downtime comes with bad weather. “We don’t pick in the rain,” Mr. Gray said. Or the snow, if it happens to come. “It’s not bad for the apple,” he said. “It’s bad for us.”

The Jamaicans at Forrence Orchards live in barracks-style dorms, with bunk beds. During their free time, they play dominoes, drink beer, watch television and joke with the friends they’ve made over the years. In the evenings, many of the men hop on bicycles and ride into town to buy supplies or to send money to their families from the Western Union.

This scene has become tradition in the Champlain Valley, and is critical to keeping the state’s orchards in business. “Without the H-2A program,” Mr. Forrence said, a successful harvest “would not be viable.” But it hasn’t always been this way. For much of the orchard’s centurylong history, it was able to rely on local or domestic help.

When Forrence was in its early years, a few men from the area helped out. Then, after the orchard began to expand in 1941, harvest season became a community event. Teachers, prison guards, state troopers and anyone else who wanted to could come out to help and earn a bit of extra money.

Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, the local air force base provided a steady supply of pickers: both the airmen and their spouses. The orchard also hired migrant laborers. But by the late ’60s, the Forrences said, wages at the base began to rise, and the priorities of the workers changed. The Forrences had heard that another local orchard was using Jamaican pickers, and decided to go that route as well.

“We were then spoiled,” said Mason Forrence, Seth’s father, praising the Jamaicans as friendly, hardworking and, most important, dependable. “You can’t have help that’s gonna be here today, and not tomorrow, with a crop like this.” But reliability does come at a price.

“This is a very, very expensive program,” continued the elder Mr. Forrence. It costs the orchard about $1,500 to get each man to New York, plus wages and housing. “Labor is the No. 1 expense here,” added Seth Forrence, noting that the orchard is also beholden to the apples’ schedule. “It’s a race against time.”

Every year, the Forrences try to find local help, both because of cost and because the H-2A requires them to advertise locally, and in two other states, before bringing in foreign workers. This year only one qualified person replied, and he didn’t even last into harvest season.

The Jamaican government has been sending people here since World War II, when labor was in short supply. The program started with sugarcane cutters in Florida, and has since shifted to predominantly apple pickers. Today, there are about 3,800 Jamaican H-2A workers spread across 13 different states.

The program “is a household name in Jamaica,” said Methelina Scarlett-Jones, the chief liaison officer at the Jamaican Central Labor Organization in Washington, D.C. Her office helps get workers to the United States and assists them once they’re here. “It’s been of great benefit to both countries,” Ms. Scarlett-Jones said.

The H2A program also has its critics.

Paola Betchart, an advocate with the Worker Justice Center of New York, said that she’s gotten reports of poor treatment, discrimination and even workplace violence. “They don’t complain because they want to keep coming,” she said.

Ms. Betchart said that she is currently working with two pickers who were exposed to pesticides and are having difficulty getting treatment. The Southern Poverty Law Center described the guest worker program in general as “close to slavery.”

“I’m definitely not here for the fun,” said Desmond Gayle, 60, who has been coming to Forrence Orchards since 1987. “This is not a bed of roses. This is blood, sweat and tears.”

Mr. Gayle’s biggest complaints aren’t about the work or the orchard, but the limits of the H-2A program. Each year he has to be reselected, apply for a new visa and then go back to Jamaica when his time is up. There’s no path to a more permanent status in the United States (except marriage or company sponsorship, which are extremely rare). “We put so much in and yet at the end of the day, we’re taking nothing out,” he said, emphasizing that he always pays his taxes and never causes any trouble. “That’s the part I grumble about all the time. That’s the part I would love to be fixed.”

The Forrences see room for improvement as well. Mason Forrence would like to have more flexibility when deciding how many workers to hire. He said that he must request a specific number of people for a defined time period, months in advance. “It’s really hard to predict,” he said. “We kind of have to guess and hope we’ve guessed right.”

Another major uncertainty, Mason Forrence said, is the program’s political future. “We don’t know where the Trump administration is going with this. We’re nervous.” It’s a concern that the Jamaicans share too. “We’re on the edge,” Mr. Gray said.

So far, the H-2A program has stayed out of the immigration reform cross hairs. In fact, the program has been growing rapidly. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of H-2A workers in the United States nearly tripled, to over 150,000. And 2017 has seen another huge bump.

Clifton Heaven, 26, was one of the orchard’s new recruits this year. He started in mid-September, a week late because of Hurricane Irma. Despite the 76-degree warm spell on a recent afternoon, he wore a yellow-and-red fleece sweater. He jokingly blamed the wardrobe malfunction on his uncle, who had warned him of cold weather. Regardless, it didn’t distract him from the apples. “You’ve got to give it a little twist,” he said, with the snap of a stem. “Like that.”

If Mr. Heaven wants, and the program continues, he’ll most likely be able to come back next year. And the year after. The oldest Jamaican at Forrence Orchards is Willard Shaw, 71. He’s been coming for more than 30 years, and his son is here now too. “Time flies,” said Mr. Shaw, who promised to “keep going until they don’t want me no more.”