The migrant life: Jamaican workers in the apple orchards of Massachusetts

Bright red apples cover the ground, fill the trees, fill the giant refrigerated barn and fill the 15-bushel boxes that Errol Cameron and his fellow Jamaican pickers carry through the narrow orchard rows at The Big Apple farm in Wrentham, as Patrick Anderson reports in The Sun Chronicle.
For Cameron, as it is for many New Englanders, the fall apple harvest is an annual rite. He has made the journey from the Caribbean to Massachusetts for the past 10 years, and expects to be back again.
“They send for us, we come,” Cameron said on his way in from the orchards last week.
At farms like The Big Apple, the arrival of Jamaican workers each August has become an integral element of the harvest, and a part of the region’s agricultural tradition.
“They know how to pick apples,” said John Morse, owner of The Big Apple. “People who don’t know how to do it take the wrong ones, damage them or take off the bud for next year, as well.”

For this year’s harvest, The Big Apple has brought in four Jamaican workers through the federal government’s H-2A guest worker visa program, which allows farmers to bring in temporary agricultural help from outside the country to fill labor shortages.
Morse said he has tried to use local workers in the past, but hasn’t found many willing or able to work full time every day for all of the four-month harvest.
The job is not easy.
The pickers maneuver wooden ladders into the trees to get at the fruit, and then maneuver themselves on the ladders while laden with the apple boxes.
In addition to apples, they also pick peaches, plums and other tree-born fruit.
Each of the Jamaicans, Morse said, can pick up to 75 bushels a day without damaging the trees or picking fruit that can’t be sold. Finding locals to match that has been difficult.

“Locals just don’t want to do this work,” Morse said.
According to statistics from the state office of Labor and Workforce Development, 153 Massachusetts employers this year requested 551 H-2A foreign workers in all areas of agriculture. Of those requested, the government approved 538 workers to come here.
To hire foreign workers, farmers are required to advertise the jobs to the domestic workforce and prove to the government that the openings cannot be filled locally.
In some years, the government did not allow the Jamaicans to come here, Morse said, with poor results for the harvest.
The link between Jamaica and the New England apple harvest is not new.
Morse said it started decades ago, when Jamaicans travelled to the mid-Atlantic to harvest tobacco during the summer, then headed north for the fall apple and peach season.
In addition to the larger farms in Massachusetts, farms in the Champlain Valley of Vermont and in upstate New York have also traditionally hosted Jamaican pickers.
Cameron said he got his first New England apple picking job through the Jamaican government, which sanctions the trips abroad.
When he returns home, Cameron said he and many of the Jamaican pickers will go back to farm work there, where bananas and yams are the staple crops.
The work on the island is not much different from picking in Massachusetts, he said, but the pay is better here in the United States.
Although Cameron said he doesn’t mind when the weather turns cold in the fall, Morse said the crew is quick to don knit hats and sweatshirts whenever the mercury dips.
For this year’s harvest, the biggest problem was wind, not cold.
Throughout the orchards, peaches and apples lay on the ground after being blown off trees, many of which were uprooted after being blown over by Tropical Storm Irene.
All told, Morse estimates he lost 30 to 40 percent of this year’s crop from the storm.
Some of the apples blown down by the wind can be sold for cider, Morse said, but because the storm hit so early in the year, most of the damaged apples are not sweet enough.
The storm has also prevented The Big Apple from allowing customers to pick their own apples, a popular autumn activity.
Despite the damage caused by Irene, The Big Apple’s refrigerated storage barn was packed with apple crates and the farm store was busy last Thursday with customers picking up Jersey Macs and Paula Reds.
Morse points out that the efficiency of the Jamaican picking crews allows him to employ dozens of local workers in the other ends of his operation, which is evident in all the activity from the apple sorting tanks to the cash registers.
“It’s not that we don’t hire Americans, too,” he said.

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