Every August, as the first McIntoshs start growing heavy on his apple trees, farmer Art Kelly looks forward to the arrival of Kelly Orchards’ three long-term employees. He’s known them for decades – one has been picking apples at this Acton orchard for 45 years, predating even Kelly – and they’re so good at what they do that he’s willing to soldier through a boatload of federal paperwork and pay airfare to get them from Jamaica to Maine.
He needs these foreign-born pickers and they need him.
But after the new Trump administration made abrupt changes to immigration policy, allowing officials to halt people from seven Muslim-majority countries at airports (until his unconstitutional executive order was shut down by federal judges) and continues to conduct large-scale raids on immigrant communities, Kelly and other Maine farmers are anxious about what will come next.
“There’s just a lot of unknowns right now,” Kelly said. He uses legal channels to bring these workers in, the federal program that extends temporary visas for seasonal workers that goes by the bureaucratic name H-2A. No one has said the program is threatened, although language in the nixed executive order alarmed some. But the tumultuous political atmosphere is such that Maine’s agricultural leaders in crops from blueberries to broccoli share his concerns.
And down in Jamaica, Kelly’s apple pickers don’t know what to think, either.
“They are concerned about whether they will be able to come or not,” Kelly said.
And if they couldn’t? Kelly laughs ruefully. “Oh man,” he says. “I don’t really know.”
“I don’t think we could survive it, to tell you the truth.”
These are questions faced by farmers across the country, from dairy farmers in Idaho who rely on a workforce that is 85 percent immigrants, to Florida, where many of those who pick tomatoes and strawberries are said to be undocumented. In Maine, the conversations may be quieter, but they’re happening.
“I am hearing from farmers that their workers are anxious, because right now there is just such insecurity,” said Julie-Marie Bickford, executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association.
And based on what the Trump administration has already signaled, those anxieties are justifiable, says Beth Stickney, executive director of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition.
“Always in the immigration world, rumor and impressions outpace reality,” Stickney said. “In the 30 years I have been doing this, that has always been the case.”
But the fear is heightened now. “What we are hearing is that there is a lot of fear … talk of, if the U.S. is really turning on immigrants, ‘Why do I want to go there?’ ”
This might be particularly relevant to Maine agriculture.
“If you are Latino in one of the whitest states in the country, are you going to want to stay in Maine?” Stickney said. “Or are you going to want to do your agricultural work in Florida, Texas or California, somewhere where you blend in?”
Migrant labor is nothing new in Maine. Joe Young, executive director of the New England Apple Council, which serves as the agent connecting Maine orchards to H-2A or “guest workers,” said the Jamaican connection dates back 50 years (remember “Cider House Rules”? John Irving was writing fiction, but based in factual circumstances).
Before that, pickers came into the state from Nova Scotia. Young formed such close relationships, growing up on a New Hampshire apple orchard where pickers were Jamaican, that when he got married it was in Jamaica, with one of those pickers as his best man.
According to Maine’s Department of Labor, 18 percent of paid farmworkers reported by Maine farm operations are migrant workers. Those are defined as workers who have traveled far enough to work that they are unable to return home at the end of the day. They might have traveled from across the state, or come from big agricultural states, like Washington, Texas, Minnesota, Michigan and Florida, but most are foreign-born.
In the 2012 Farm Census conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly 22,000 farms reported hiring 437,000 migrant workers. Maine farmers reported 2,700 migrant workers in that latest census. But the actual number could be larger, said Julie Rabinowitz, director of policy, operations and communications for Maine’s Department of Labor, because it is unclear whether that number includes those on H-2A visas, such as Kelly’s apple pickers.
Or the large group of expert broccoli cutters relied on by Smith’s Farm president Emily Smith. When Smith started hiring foreign-born workers in the 1990s, they were mostly Filipino. But of the 200 people in their current field crew, most are from Mexico and El Salvador, and they are extraordinarily reliable and productive, she said.
“They make big money and they deserve every penny,” she said.
“I tell my crew, ‘Every day when I go to bed I thank God for these people,’ ” she said, referring to the guest workers and about 70 employees who come from nearby to work. ” ‘Because you are the people that make this happen.’ It’s not that I am a sixth-generation farmer and I went to college. Any organization is only as good as the people that they can put to the task.”
Of those 200 non-native pickers, Smith said about two-thirds have documentation to work legally on a permanent basis in the United States and about half of that group have been in the country “15 years-plus.” The other third are on temporary H-2A visas.
GUEST WORKERS ‘GET THE JOB DONE’
The guest worker program is far from perfect, Smith and other agricultural leaders say. But when talking about the work ethic of these migrant workers, the farmers sound like that lusty chorus about immigrants in the hit musical “Hamilton”; plainly, they “get the job done.”
Typically about two dozen Maine farms participate in the H-2A program. Last year it was 27, ranging from orchards to vegetable farms, and in total, they requested 635 employees.
It’s a complex process. It starts with a farmer requesting workers, often through an agent like Joe Young, 90 days before the farmer needs them. (They can’t file earlier. Smith said if they could, it might streamline a system that often has farmers wondering which day the workers will arrive.) The agent sends the paperwork to the farmer, gets it back, and then files it with the state. In Maine, Jorge Acero, the migrant worker monitor at the state Department of Labor, must approve the request.
Next, the request, along with more paperwork, goes to the U.S. Department of Labor in Chicago. There’s some back and forth, then the request, along with more paperwork, goes to California for review by federal immigration officials. Once they approve, the request goes to consulates in foreign countries, where the workers are technically “recruited.”
In Jamaica, the Ministry of Labor serves as the agent. Growers have an opportunity to request by names, so they can bring back the same workers year after year, presuming those workers pass all the background checks.
Young was alarmed by the rejected executive order that would have required these workers to be interviewed every year, even if they were regulars.
“Where in the past, there was a waiver,” he said. “If everyone has to re-interview, it will break the system. There are not enough interviewers.”
Simultaneously, advertisements are placed in newspapers and in public places to recruit American-born workers. This is part of the program, a legal necessity.
“Every local that comes to us, we hire,” says Jeff Timberlake of Ricker Hill, one of Maine’s biggest apple orchards.
But even extensive advertising rarely bears much fruit.
“If you are Down East in August, you cannot walk into a gas station or convenience store without seeing signs for ‘Rakers Wanted,’ ” says Ed Flanagan, president and CEO of Wyman’s of Maine. “We have ‘help wanted’ signs hanging up everywhere.”
But the work is hard, and few Mainers sign on.
“You can’t count on locals to do that work anymore,” Flanagan said.
In contrast, the workers Wyman’s brings in – most are originally from Mexico and Central America but live in the U.S. and have Social Security numbers – are willing and more than able. Like the young Hispanic man Flanagan says set a record last summer by raking 400 boxes of blueberries in one day. “He made $1,000 that day,” Flanagan said.
Wyman’s uses the federal government’s “E-verify” system, an internet-based system to confirm that documents and Social Security numbers are real (fake documents abound). When the wild blueberry farm made that switch about five years ago, Flanagan said they wondered if they’d scare away workers.
“Since we have gone to E-verify we still worry every year if enough workers will show up,” he said. “But at least we don’t worry that we are hiring someone who is illegal.”
“There is not a farmer in America that wants to hire an illegal worker,” Flanagan added.
‘POLITICAL FOOTBALL’ FOR DECADES
Flanagan is taking a wait-and-see approach to the Trump administration’s policy on immigrants. He’s quick to point out that the system for temporary workers has been flawed for years. The Obama administration “made it pretty difficult” he said, a common refrain among farmers.
For instance, a computer glitch last summer delayed processing for workers and left Smith’s Farm waiting for workers to arrive. Kelly’s workers arrived in Acton a week late and Jeff Timberlake remembers a nine-day delay one year, after the Department of Labor’s H-2A program was centralized from two locations to one, in Chicago. (Timberlake and others attributed this change to President Barack Obama, but that administration was acting on a change made by President George W. Bush’s administration in 2008). But broccoli at its tender peak and apples that quickly go mushy in an August sun do not take a pause because bureaucracy does.
And some farmers said new administrations tend to balk at the idea that these jobs can’t be filled locally, despite evidence to the contrary stretching back decades. The Smiths started using foreign-born labor in the 1990s. Maine’s dairy industry began using foreign-born workers more recently. But Maine orchards have been hiring them the longest. “And it has been a political football the whole time,” Kelly said.
Jeff Timberlake describes Ricker Hill’s longtime workers as “like family.”
But it’s a sensitive subject for farmers, who know they could draw criticism for employing those from away. Or very far away, as the case may be.
“Public sentiment can be uncertain about the idea of bringing folks in,” said Bickford of the dairy association.
The dairy industry is not eligible for H-2A workers, because that work is not considered seasonal. But Bickford said Maine farmers work with employment services to be matched with documented workers, frequently from Mexico or Central America, and it’s been a positive experience so far.
“For just about every farmer I have talked to, there might have been some challenges at the beginning,” Bickford said. “The crash course in Spanish to make sure they could appropriately and accurately communicate with the workers. But overall the folks that have been employing these workers are very pleased with the caliber of the employees.”
Some may assume these workers are brought in because they’re cheap labor. Not so, the farmers say. The government sets an hourly pay rate that currently hovers around $12, much higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25. And then there are associated costs.
“We fly them from Jamaica to Miami,” Timberlake said. “We pay for all of their transportation here and their housing.”
Timberlake and others said they are willing to pay for the reliability of these workers, in the barns or in the fields. “This is the only way I can get an apple crop picked.”
Are there abuses in the system, the kind that lead to guest workers overstaying their visas?
Occasionally, someone on an H-2A visa does disappear from the orchard, Timberlake said. They slip away from the job and presumably, remain in the country illegally. But Timberlake says that’s a rarity. “The ones you lose are usually single guys that don’t have any family back home.”
Between programs like H-2A or E-verify, and regular visits from the U.S. Department of Labor to check paperwork, which farmers said typically happens in the busiest part of the harvest, opportunities for undocumented workers to make their way to Maine and find employment on farms is limited.
It probably does happen, said Beth Stickney of the Maine Business Immigration Coalition, but rarely. “There may be some folks getting paid under the table in Maine but that would be a small minority.”
This past week, President Trump indicated in conversations with television anchors a willingness to compromise on immigration. That would suit Maine farmers who rely on a non-native labor force just fine.
It might look like mud season out there, but sprouting broccoli and blooming fruit will arrive soon enough, along with deadlines to bring in immigrants.
“We are going to need people that aren’t scared and are happy,” Emily Smith said, “and going to be able to get up and perform. You don’t want them to be fearful.”
Timberlake, who serves in the Maine Legislature as a Republican from Turner when he isn’t farming, isn’t worried. During the campaign, Ricker Hill hosted members of the Trump family; Timberlake feels like he’s got connections in Washington upon whom he can call if anything goes wrong with the Jamaican apple pickers he’s worked with for decades.
“These guys stand up for me and I stand up for them,” Timberlake said. “If anything happened, I would come to their rescue.”
“Our actual hope is under this administration that (the federal agencies) will run more efficiently,” Timberlake added. “And get our people here more efficiently. I think this administration understands business.”
Only time will tell.
“Today I will tell you I have got faith. You contact me in four months, when we start to finalize our plans, I may have a different opinion for you.”
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: