TURNER — Steve Scott stands near the top of a ladder, his head as high as the apple tree he is quickly clearing of fruit. As he reaches to his left to palm two apples, he’s already looking to his right for the next one.

He moves swiftly up and down, emptying buckets of apples into wooden bins hooked to a tractor parked between the rows of trees. When he’s done with one tree, he slings the metal ladder over his shoulder and moves on to the next.

Steve Scott, a migrant worker at Ricker Hill Orchard in Turner, reaches for a jonamac apple as he and his fellow pickers fill tractor wagons with fruit. He must pick at least 8 bushels per hour. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

It’s quick work, and it’s hard work. He must pick at least eight bushels – about 1,000 apples – each hour. And those apples must meet the orchard’s standards: at least half red, no bruising, no leaves.

Scott and the other seven pickers on the crew alternate between silence and animated banter, never slowing their work. Scott responds to a comment from a picker working high in a neighboring tree in his lilting patois. His deep laugh carries over the hillside orchard.

Despite the heat of a warm late-summer day, Scott wears long pants and high boots. The sleeves of his fleece pullover jacket are pushed up above his elbows. Scott is more than 1,800 miles from his house and family in Jamaica, but he’s right at home in the apple orchards of Maine.

“I love farming so much,” he says. “My whole life is farming, mon.”

Scott is one of nearly 600 apple pickers who travel from Jamaica to Maine each year to work, an autumn ritual that has become emblematic of the New England apple industry. The tradition dates back to the 1940s when farmers started bringing in foreign workers to fill jobs left vacant by men off fighting World War II. Other Jamaicans travel to Down East Maine to rake blueberries or to Connecticut to harvest broad-leaf tobacco.


Federally certified H-2A job positions from Maine employers, by federal fiscal year

H-2A visas are given to temporary agricultural workers such as apple or blueberry pickers. Here is the number of jobs that Maine-based employers got permission to fill using H-2A visas. No data was available about how many international workers were actually hired to fill these certified positions, although 27 employers in Maine brought 635 people to Maine to work in 2016. H-2A workers hired by Maine-based employers earned an average of $11.74 an hour in 2016. Notes: Federal fiscal years run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.

Harry Ricker, one of the owners of Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner, says his family started bringing in seasonal workers after the Great Depression in the 1930s. For many years, it was pickers from Nova Scotia, but as the Canadian fishing industry changed, they were harder to recruit. The Ricker family began recruiting from Jamaica in the early 1970s.

Ricker Hill Orchard, founded in 1803, now has more than 400 acres of apples. The orchards are spread over seven towns in three counties in western Maine. The apple harvest is short and requires many long, hard days in the orchards. Many orchard owners have a hard time finding enough locals to work these jobs, so they rely on pickers who come to New England to work. The employers are required to advertise the jobs extensively before requesting foreign workers.

Orchards such as Ricker Hill hire workers who travel to the United States on H-2A visas, which are available for seasonal agricultural work. This year, Ricker Hill hired 56 Jamaican pickers to work from the last weeks of August until the end of October.

“This is what you do if you’re a wholesale apple grower in America,” Ricker said. “It’s hard work and it’s only for a few weeks. We’re able to recruit from the rural areas of Jamaica. They understand farm work and they’ve been a very good match for us.”

Seven years ago, Scott joined the program that recruits Jamaicans to apply for H-2A visas to work in the U.S. Each year, Scott and the other pickers who travel to Ricker Hill must pass a physical exam and travel to the embassy to get their visas. They then fly to Miami and take a bus north to Maine, arriving just as the apples ripen and the harvest begins.

A farmworker enters one of the cabins in which he and a dozen or so other workers live at Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner. This year, Ricker Hill hired 56 Jamaican pickers to work from the last weeks of August until the end of October. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Scott is 47 years old and has a tinge of gray in his beard. He is from Saint Thomas Parish, a mountainous region on the southeastern end of Jamaica. Agriculture plays a vital role in the economy of the rural parish, where small farms provide the main source of employment.

Scott has always been a farmer, he says, and he’s now teaching his son to be the same.

“I used to go to the bush with (my father) to plant things, so I do the same,” he says.

Back home in the hills of Saint Thomas Parish, Scott grows ginger, coconuts, tomatoes and pumpkins. But, in Jamaica he plants his crops and waits, his income dependent on the season and the yield.

During his time in Maine, Scott earns a steady income to help support his wife, Blossom Dennis, and his three daughters and two sons. His children range in age from 15 to 30. Scott brings home most of his earnings, along with the shoes and clothing he knows his wife and children want.

“Up here we get paid every week. Back home we have to plant and wait,” Scott says.

Pickers earn a minimum of $12 an hour and most Jamaican workers, who pick more than the minimum eight bushels an hour, earn $4,000 to $5,000 during their two months in Maine, said Ricker. For many, that’s as much as they would earn in a year back home.

For Scott and his fellow Jamaicans, the time in Maine revolves around their work in the orchard. They generally stay close to Ricker Hill, save for trips to the store. Some days, Scott and the crew stay in the orchard during their noon break, sitting on their apple buckets in the shade of the trees to eat lunch. On a muggy summer afternoon a week after Scott and a handful of other pickers arrived in Turner, they head out of the orchard for lunch.

The low-slung kitchen house sits just off a dirt road, next to the three small houses where the apple pickers stay and overlooking the orchards and hills beyond. It’s hot in the kitchen house, with the windows closed and no fans running.

“They like to make it feel like Jamaica,” Sam Ricker, Harry Ricker’s son, jokes as he heads out the open door.

Steve Scott lays out dominoes on the table in the dining area of the compound where he and the other migrant farmworkers live at Ricker Hill Orchards. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

In the kitchen, red dominoes sit on the table, scattered after the last game and waiting for the next. All the workers are competitive players, Scott says. Some of them are so good they can guess the dominoes in their opponents’ hands.

“I’m a good cook, you know,” Scott says, pointing to the stove top where a few pans rest on burners. His specialty is a dish made with cornmeal and chicken.

On their few days off, Scott and the other pickers cook, wash up their clothes and rest. They always want to be prepared for the next day in the orchard.

“We live like we are family,” he says. He has no plans to stop coming to Maine because he likes the work and the people.

Sam Ricker, who oversees the eight-man crew in the orchard, says Scott is an experienced picker with an outgoing personality that does not go unnoticed.

“He’s a lively one,” he says. “He’s good with the young guys. We get guys who haven’t picked before and he takes them under his wing a bit.”


WHAT IS A MIGRANT WORKER?

A migrant worker is anyone who travels to work an agricultural job, and goes far enough that they cannot return home at the end of the day. Many migrant workers move to different parts of the world to work, depending on the season and the crops that need harvesting.

Where do migrant workers come from?

Migrant workers come to Maine from across the United States and from other countries. There are more than 3 million migrant workers in the United States and they are predominantly Mexican-born and male, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Some are undocumented, while others have legal status to work in the United States.

How many migrant workers are in Maine?

Maine farms reported hiring 2,700 migrant workers in 2012, the most recent data published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That number could be higher because it is unclear if that includes the hundreds of people who come to the state on H-2A visas to work in Maine, primarily as apple pickers and loggers. Nationwide, 134,000 workers received H-2A visas in 2016.

What is an H-2A visa?

The H-2A program allows qualifying foreign nationals to come to the U.S. to work for certain agricultural employers on a seasonal basis. Last year, 27 employers in Maine brought 635 people to Maine to work. The majority of H-2A agricultural workers in Maine are recruited from Jamaica to work on apple and vegetable farms.

What kind of work do migrant workers do while they’re in Maine?

Migrant workers in Maine often go to Washington and Aroostook counties to rake blueberries and harvest other crops, including potatoes. Orchard owners rely heavily on H-2A visa holders to harvest apples, although some H-2A workers also harvest other types of crops or work for logging companies.

Why don’t the farms and orchards hire Mainers to work these jobs?

They do, but farmers say there aren’t enough people to fill jobs that are full time but only last during the short harvest period. Employers who use the H-2A program must demonstrate there are not enough qualified workers and that hiring H-2A workers will not adversely affect the wages or working conditions of American workers. They are required to advertise jobs extensively before hiring foreign workers. The average pay for an H-2A worker in Maine was $11.74 an hour in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Has the Trump administration made or proposed any changes affecting migrant workers?

President Trump said last spring that he does not want to create labor problems for farmers and would look into ways to improve the program that brings in temporary agricultural workers on legal visas. Migrant workers who do not have H-2A visas and are working in the United States without proper paperwork could face issues as the administration cracks down on undocumented immigrants.



JAMAICA

The Caribbean island of Jamaica has had one of the world’s slowest-growing economies over the past 30 years and high public debt. It has been propped up by loans from the International Monetary Fund.

An IMF publication in May noted that while economic growth and employment are improving, the unemployment rate is high and poverty persists. Unemployment was reported to be 12.2 percent in April, a seven-year low, by the IMF. The per-capita income was reported to be about $8,200 by the World Bank. Such poverty has led many Jamaicans to leave the island to work elsewhere for part of the year.

To Americans, Jamaica is known as a vacation destination with beautiful beaches, and tourism is the island’s top industry. Americans also have embraced several high-profile Jamaicans, including Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt and the unlikely Jamaican national bobsled team.

Culturally, Jamaica is a rich blend of influences that include Africa and Great Britain, which in the 17th and 18th centuries established sugar plantations there and used it as a hub for the slave trade.

Cultural reference: Reggae music, particularly that of the late Bob Marley