Migrant farm laborers harvest a Waldoboro blueberry field. Hard workers rake a half acre a day and earn the equivalent of $20 an hour.   Photo by C. Parrish

 

Hard, Fast Money in Blueberryland

by Christine Parrish

From a distance, the blueberry harvest looks as bucolic as a Bruegel painting of corn-harvesters scything cornstalks in a Dutch landscape; the rolling boulder-strewn fields, a quiet country lane, field workers bent beneath the sapphire sky, the color reflected in clusters of dusty berries that taste as sweet as the last days of a Maine summer.

Up close, it hurts.

The migrant farm labor crew of over 20 men and one woman bends over the heath, grappling 8-pound aluminum blueberry rakes with both hands, sweeping, then tugging the long metal tines through the low bushes with a steady whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

First, it’s the lower back, then a sharp pain in the knees from bending and twisting over and over, whooshing the rake through the berries, tugging back to force the berries into the gullet of the rake. Then it’s a gnawing ache in the shoulders.

“These people don’t come up here for minimum wage,” says Nick, the crew boss of a migrant labor crew raking blueberries on a 14-acre field in Waldoboro at the end of the third week in August.

Minimum wage for farm labor is $7.50 an hour. Seventy-five bucks for a 10-hour day. There is no overtime for farm labor, no 40-hour work week.

“No, nobody,” says Nick, shaking his head at the crazy talk. “A hundred bucks a day? No, that’s not enough. We make one-fifty to two hundred a day, sometimes more.”

 

Nick looks to be in his forties and lives in Louisiana when he isn’t laboring elsewhere. This crew came straight up from Immokalee, Florida, the heart of East Coast commercial farming and the birthplace of the supermarket tomato. He has a daughter with a college education who doesn’t plan to work in the fields.

Nick’s crew was hired by Lorenzo Tunek, a farm labor contractor who started as a raker himself two decades ago, working fields in Union, Appleton and Hope for blueberry farmers who used to hire pickers directly and provide them help with housing. Local farmers got out of that when they couldn’t keep up with U.S. Department of Labor housing and labor requirements. Now they contract with Lorenzo, as they all call him, as if he were a family friend.

Lorenzo wanted to move out of the fields. He didn’t want to be a crew boss for the big blueberry farms like Cherryfield Foods and Wyman’s, both of whom hire their own labor directly and work a three-week season to get the berries in. He wanted to be independent, and the logical next step was to start his own business as a farm labor contractor.

 

Lorenzo pays his migrant laborers based on a contract price he negotiates with the growers. The price this year is $2.25 a box, based on 22 pounds to the box. Lorenzo deducts $50 a week from employee wages for lodging in a campground. (Nick’s crew stays in Orland because they can’t find any closer accommodations that will accept the mostly male crew.)

Lorenzo deducts $78.50 a week for meals for seven days a week, and deducts taxes and Social Security. The crew works six days a week, with Saturdays off, and averages a 52-hour work-week.

Over the telephone from Louisiana, where Lorenzo lives, he takes a pay stub from his desk and gives me the numbers for one of his pickers.

This picker grossed $1,054.00 for six days of work last week. After subtracting food and campground expenses and all taxes ($84.38), the picker made $811.92.

His rate of pay was $20.25 an hour, no overtime.

Lorenzo provides transportation from Florida in company-owned vans and pays for daily transportation to and from the blueberry fields scattered across coastal Maine. And he provides the heavy commercial blueberry rakes, which cost $130, new.

When Lorenzo’s crews finish the 4- to 6-week blueberry season in Maine, they head to pick apples in New York, then tobacco in Kentucky, maybe some cauliflower somewhere else. Whatever needs to be harvested, said Lorenzo.

As a licensed and registered farm labor contractor, of which there are hundreds in the U.S. who hire migrant laborers from Mexico, Central and South America, Haiti and other poor countries, Lorenzo fills out federal labor forms for his employees, checks identification and pays payroll taxes into the federal system. Right now, he has about 75 seasonal laborers, many of them planting trees. The visa that allows for tree planting doesn’t allow for harvesting vegetables, so Lorenzo is going after a second kind of visa so his entire crew can get more agricultural work in the Mid-Atlantic region.

In the midcoast blueberry companies, Lorenzo is known for treating his workers well, paying them fairly, and providing competent labor.

 

“Oh, boy, give me a Lorenzo crew, any day,”  said Paul Sweetland, the softspoken farm manager for Coastal Blueberry Service in Union. The office and loading platforms are in a white clapboard building located next to the entrance to the Union Fairgrounds, where the Blueberry Princess was crowned last week at the Union Fair.

Sweetland didn’t make it to the fair. He’s too busy working from around seven in the morning until 10 at night, bringing in the harvest from fields scattered around Knox, Waldo, Lincoln and eastern Kennebec counties. Some fields are a smattering of acres. Others are 20 acres or more. Coastal Blueberry doesn’t own any fields of its own; it manages and harvests berries owned by private land-owners.

Sweetland grew up raking berries and he was fast as a kid, filling two buckets before everyone made it off the crew bus that took the local crews to the fields. As a boy, his dream was to run a blueberry operation.

“Be careful what you wish for,” he said, but he clearly loves his job. He is the only year-round full-time employee of Coastal Blueberry Service.

At 59 years old, he has seen a lot of changes in blueberrying.

“The biggest change right now is that everyone is moving to mechanical harvesting,” said Sweetland, as he maneuvers his red truck up a rocky lane leading to a field on top of Appleton Ridge. There were two tractors in the field, with harvester machines attached. It takes one man to drive the tractor. A young local man works the back of the harvester for eight to 10 bucks an hour, lifting box after box of berries as they are filled from the conveyor that sweeps them up from the rakes.

On fields that have been groomed clear of big boulders and smoothed to a carpet of low-bush heath, a harvester machine can pluck two and a half acres a day, winnowing leaves as it goes. It is the most efficient and the cheapest way to harvest berries.

 

On Clary Hill in Union, which has acres of blueberry fields criss-crossed with stone walls, mechanized harvesters work the lower groomed fields. Sweetland pulls the truck into another field and drives across the berries to meet up with two of his Maine-based field hands: Manuel and Mario.

“Executive privilege,” he says, almost apologetically, as blueberry bushes and black-eyed susans crunch beneath the tires.

No one but Sweetland drives on the fields. He doesn’t have time to walk. After a quick check of the boulder-strewn field he gives the nod to Manuel that this field, which is too rough for the mechanized harvester, can be raked with a walk-behind, a massive one-man machine that waddles like an unruly rototiller and needs to be manhandled to gather the berries.

Mario, a white-haired man with a ready smile, starts the engine. The foot-high upland sandpiper that nests in the quiet rolling fields of Clary Hill earlier in the summer is not in evidence, but is likely startled by what sounds like a garbage truck crossed with a Shop-Vac. Mario clamps on  ear muffs and wrangles the walk-behind into position, ignoring the leaves, twigs and stray berries flung in his face by the winnower. Crew members spot each other, trading off to man-handle the beast and taking turns resting in shade amid the Queen Anne’s lace at the edge of the field.

The walk-behind can harvest about an acre of berries a day.

 

“The Hispanic crews, each raker, can do about a half acre a day,” said Sweetland as we trundle back down Clary Hill to the Union loading dock to pick up blue plastic berry boxes to take over to the hand crew raking the Waldoboro field. Later in the day, trucks will come down from Ellsworth to pick up the berries, which will be picked over and flash frozen in Ellsworth.

As far as labor goes, local crews don’t get the nod. They don’t even measure in terms of productivity. One independent crew boss put out newspaper ads last summer for local crews. Eighty people signed up, but only about six people showed up on any given morning. Of those, four weren’t the same ones that had been there the day before.

“You can’t run a harvest like that. Last time we had local crews was four years ago,” said Sweetland. “I don’t even know what to say about them. It takes them a long, long time to rake a field.”

 

Getting enough labor is always a problem, according to several growers. The days when migrant families came up is largely over and has been for a while, at least in the midcoast. The local growers here are small compared to Cherryfield Foods and Wyman’s. They can’t offer help with housing and they no longer want to know their crews personally for fear that they will unknowingly aggravate ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that used to be called the border patrol.

Some blueberry farmers miss the migrant families. There was a sense of community, noted one wistfully. The hand crews are quickly becoming a thing of the past. It’s just too much of a hassle.

“Let ’em go,” said a harvester operator working the Appleton field, muttering about Mexicans taking away jobs.

But the truth is there weren’t enough pickers this year. About a thousand pickers showed up, according to the Maine Department of Labor. It was a good crop, in spite of rainy weather during the bloom, so there were plenty of berries to harvest.

There was some urgency, too. This was the second year the Maine blueberry crop has been attacked by a prolific breeder: an Asian fruit fly that looks like the one that hovers around over-ripe bananas, but has scissor-like mouthparts that cut into ripe berries. The Spotted Wing Drosophila, as it is called, then lays eggs that turn the berries to mush. Last year, about 2 million pounds of Maine blueberries worth about $1.4 million succumbed to the fly.

The only way to get around the fly appears to be to harvest fast and harvest early. That takes workers.

 

There were a lot of workers who come up every year who just didn’t come up to Maine this year,” said Juan Perez-Febles, a Department of Labor employee who has been the  liaison between migrant farm workers and blueberry farm operators, keeping both employers and employees up-to-date on rights and regulations, for 20 years. Most of his focus is the large, Downeast blueberry barrens that hire the most workers, but he knows growers statewide.

“This business is word of mouth, right,” said Perez. “The workers were picking highbush blueberries in New Jersey and they heard they would get harassed up here after the Boston Marathon bombing. They were scared to come.”

It’s a phenomenon referred to among workers as DWM, Driving While Mexican. It’s racial profiling and the midcoast growers know that it happens to Lorenzo’s crews. In the whitest state in the nation, the dark-skinned crews stand out.

 

Coastal Blueberry Services, like most of the growers, check immigration status with the federal electronic system known as E-Verify. On the first day of work, new workers show their ID’s and their legal status is electronically confirmed overnight. If their status is in question, a worker has 10 days to correct it. In the meantime, they can work and get paid.

“Most check out as legal,” said Sweetland.

I told Sweetland of the year I hiked out into the middle of a border patrol raid in a Lincolnville blueberry field. Agents had just arrived, swooping in with guns and German shepherds on short leashes and pulling workers from the field, one by one, to check ID’s.

“That’s uncommon now,” said Sweetland, shaking his head and musing over why dogs and guns were needed. “Now they target where migrant workers live.”

Even with E-Verify, it is common knowledge that ID’s are bought and sold up and down the East Coast corridor for workers in the farm fields of America. Everyone knows it. Somebody has to pick America’s fruit and vegetables.

 

Under the proposed immigration reform bill, which passed the U.S. Senate handily in June, agricultural migrant farm workers would be allowed to get a multi-year work visa, as long as they stayed in agriculture.

But the immigration bill is bigger than the agricultural provisions. It proposes an overhaul of immigration that allows a long but navigable pathway to citizenship for 11 million people currently living illegally in the United States, combined with massive increases in border patrol.

Republican John McCain of Arizona, which has a rapidly expanding Latino voting bloc, stood solidly behind the bill, as did Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who represents a huge migrant labor force and a substantial Latino population. Senator Susan Collins also supported the immigration bill as important to Maine.

Recently, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office found the Senate version of reform, if adopted, would reduce the federal deficit by around $850 billion over the next 20 years. It would also add nearly $300 billion to the Social Security trust fund by way of payroll taxes, according to the Social Security Administration’s analysis — an amount that is nearly enough to reverse the deterioration in the old-age safety net caused by the Great Recession.

The savings is attributed to legalizing a younger immigrant workforce. Not only would they balance out the current aging Baby Boomers who are heading for retirement, proponents argue, but they would also provide a stable workforce inclined to move into entrepreneurism, employing others, paying taxes and buttressing the American economy as generations of immigrants have done before them.

Stability is currently lacking in a moving population that operates in the shadows, picking fruit, cleaning hotel toilets, laboring in timber camps, providing cheap vegetables to bargain hunters at the WalMart Supercenter, but not at all upwardly mobile in the American economic system.

 

“They didn’t come up. Yes, that’s true,” said Nick, adding weight to the rumors that pickers were afraid to come to Maine this year. In the decade he has been coming up for the harvest, he has never seen so few workers. “We go to the laundry, we go to the restaruant, they ask us: Where are the Mexicans? How come they’re not coming?”

“It’s the immigration thing,” said Nick. “If they have a chance, they don’t want to risk it by coming up here.”

An empty truck, right, waiting to be loaded with boxes of blueberries raked by a mechanical harvester which is pulled behind a tractor on Appleton Ridge.  Photo by C. Parrish