Jamaicans ensure Vermont apple crop’s success

ADDISON COUNTY — The success of one of Vermont’s most iconic crops — crisp Vermont apples and the acres of picturesque orchards that produce them — rests quite literally in the hands of workers from an island nation over 2,000 miles to the south.
Seasonal workers from Jamaica have been harvesting New England crops since the 1940s, when the battlefields and munitions factories of World War II left gaps in the agricultural workforce. Most local orchardists can’t actually remember a time when the Vermont apple crop hasn’t been picked by workers from Jamaica, but the consensus is that since about the 1970s, Jamaican hands have plucked apples from the trees and rolled them into bins with the speed, skill and numbers necessary to harvest commercial crops.
To bring in this year’s harvest, there are 310 apple pickers from Jamaica in Vermont overall — 209 of them in Addison County, according to Alyson Eastman, who brokers the complicated federal and international paperwork that brings the workers from Jamaica to America as part of the federal H2A program for seasonal agricultural workers.
“They are critical,” said Steve Justis, executive director of the Vermont Tree Fruit Growers Association.
“Growers spend a fair amount of money to advertise locally, as they’re required to by the U.S. Department of Labor, which is trying to protect the domestic workforce. But most of the domestic workforce — and that includes Vermonters — don’t want to climb ladders, and they don’t want to do the kinds of things the Jamaican workers are used to doing.”
Christiana Hodges, co-owner of the 200-acre Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall, explained that although plenty of local people work at the orchard throughout the year — in such varied jobs as pruning and caring for the trees, packing, sales, delivery and marketing — typically between zero and six local residents respond to the orchard’s annual postings for picking jobs.
“The Jamaican workers are absolutely essential,” Hodges said. “Without them we would never get the numbers of people that we need to actually pick this crop in a timely manner before it falls on the ground. They are able to work quickly and maintain the quality of the fruit throughout, and so that means that we can get a 130,000-bushel crop picked in a timely manner because 80,000 bushels of those are McIntosh, and they all ripen at the same time.
“They work in teams very efficiently. They are skilled workers, and this is a job that requires a lot of skill.”
Apple pickers typically begin their day in the orchard by 7 a.m. and put in a 10- or 11-hour day, working seven days a week. If it rains, they might get a day or a few hours off.
“You just go, and you go,” said Blake Harrison, who works closely with the workers as he supervises the harvest at Happy Valley Orchard’s trees on Pearson Road in New Haven. “When you’re not picking, the apples are falling off the trees and you lose money. So the point is: get as many apples into boxes as you can and get them to where they need to go. That’s the name of the game. The crews pick all day long.”
A skilled harvester can pick about 100 bushels a day. With each bushel weighing about 50 pounds, that’s about 5,000 pounds of apples that each man carries down the ladder from the tops of the trees to the bins in the field every day. As workers move from tree to tree, each brings along a ladder that is 16 feet long or more, which itself weighs about 40 pounds. The workers carry the ladders across the length of the orchard on their shoulders and work them deftly into tight spots, using the delicately tapering tops of the special apple-harvesting ladders to wedge them into the trees.
But strength and stamina alone won’t harvest a commercially viable apple. Some Vermont apples are picked for cider, both hard and sweet, so looks don’t matter. But most are destined for the kitchen table, where perfection is all. Consumers only want to purchase perfectly ripe apples that are blemish free. So in the field, workers must work hard and fast to get the apples off the trees before they drop on the ground, but must do so without bruising the fruit or damaging the trees, especially the tender buds that will become next year’s apples. At the same time, for eating apples the crew must determine ripeness as they go, as only cold nights give red apples the final touch of color that makes consumers want to buy.
“This is a job that requires a lot of skill,” said Hodges.
“We rely on the expertise of experienced workers like the Jamaicans because they know how to pick the fruit to get it down cleanly without knocking other apples off,” said Justis. “Another part is that they don’t damage next year’s flower buds. They also have to dump the apples gently into a field bin, so that they don’t bruise the apples. These are all really critical parts of the apple harvest.”
IMPORTANT WAGES
For the Jamaican workers, coming to Vermont to harvest apples is an important boost to their annual wages. This year, according to Eastman, most orchards are paying hourly wages (rather than by piece work), and wages in Vermont are $11.26/hour, slightly higher than in some neighboring states.
APPLE PICKERS FROM Jamaica Austin Powell, left, Peter Duffus, Keith Royal and Leonard Johnson pose around a trailer full of apple crates at Happy Valley’s Pearson Road orchard in New Haven last week.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Orchard owners pay for the workers’ transportation from Jamaica and once here provide them with housing and some transportation. Some of the larger orchards provide a meal program (overseen by federal regulations that protect workers). At smaller orchards, the men get rides to Shaw’s and Hannaford supermarkets to shop, and then cook their own food back at their on-site housing. Most crews are flown to Florida and then take a Greyhound to Vermont. They usually arrive around Sept. 1 and leave by the end of October.
“It’s economic opportunity, it really is,” said Harrison. “For some guys, I’m sure there’s an adventure element to it. But really it’s about making a significant portion of your annual income. One of our crew members told me that if he has a good week back home, he’ll make about the same as he makes here in a day — in a good week back in Jamaica. So if he works 30 days here that’s 30 weeks — 30 good weeks — back home. Think of what that means to your family’s economy. That’s a huge boost.”
In the field, the crew in the Pearson Road orchard echo the same theme.
“The apple picking, we like it because it make we have some money to help our family when we back home,” said worker Austin Powell, speaking in the richly cadenced English of Jamaica. “It’s good to us.”
Powell has a daughter, now 23, and a small son born just this month back in Jamaica. He’s been coming to the United States for 10 years to supply seasonal agricultural labor, six of those years picking apples in Vermont.
“It help me out a lot to provide schooling for my kids,” said crew member Peter Duffus. The men explain that schooling is not free in Jamaica. Each family must supply tuition. Duffus’s work in Vermont will help him provide school tuition for his two teenage sons and 12-year-old daughter.
Back home, Duffus farms sugar cane, cassava and vegetables. He’s picked apples in Vermont for three years out of his 11 years coming to the United States. In previous years, he’s picked tobacco in Massachusetts, detassled corn in Iowa and picked corn in Georgia. Duffus also practices herbal medicine back in Jamaica, working out of a stand in the marketplace.
For Keith Royal, who’s an electrician back home, America provides not just a needed source of income but “experience and uplift to make a life better.” Royal explains that in Jamaica an electrician has to negotiate a job based on a price the customer can pay and that given the high cost of materials, workmanship doesn’t command the kind of wages it does here. “You cannot kill your customer,” said Royal, chuckling. “You have to negotiate.”
While Royal, Duffus and Powell are in their 30s and 40s, the most experienced worker on the Pearson Road crew is Leonard Johnson, in his 60s. Johnson’s house burned down last year, so this year’s wages will help him put it back together. But more importantly for Johnson are the ways that his Vermont wages will help him provide better medical care for his wife, who has both high blood pressure and diabetes.
UP IN THE TREES
Johnson has been coming to the United States as a seasonal agricultural worker for “40-odd years.” He and the rest of the crew burst out laughing at this, with incredulity, thinking about how long Johnson has labored in American fields and all the crops and places he’s seen. For the past three years Johnson has picked apples in Vermont. In years previous, he’s been to Florida, Connecticut, New York and Virginia, picking everything from sugar cane to fruit to tobacco.
Back up in the trees, deftly climbing ladders and picking apples, the four-man crew cleans a tree in a few minutes flat, the air punctuated by laughter, the occasional thunk of an apple and the intermittent calls of birds in the trees.
All around is a sight that brings tourists flocking to Vermont every fall and makes Vermonters just plain happy to be here: row upon row of apple trees, stretching about as far as the eye can see, red globes of fruit gleaming in the green leaves.
“These guys are super hard working, the hardest working people you can imagine,” said Harrison. “They do a job that other people don’t want to do that we all benefit from. And they do it because at the end of the day most of them have families, and they’re just trying to do what anybody would do, which is make money for their families. They just want to work; you’ve got to respect that. And we all have to be thankful that we’ve got them because otherwise I don’t know what our apple industry would look like. We are the beneficiaries of their need and their desire to come here.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at gaenm@addisonindependent.com.

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