Barney Hodges III is a third-generation apple farmer and the second generation to run his family’s farm in Vermont. Like his father and his grandfather before him, Hodges depends on migrant labor to keep the family business alive—a farm that pumps $3 million into the local economy each year.
These days the family farm is a 200-acre apple orchard in Cornwall, Vermont, in the agriculturally rich Champlain Valley. Formed by the Lake Champlain basin, the valley’s glacial-fed soil and moderate temperatures have attracted farmers since the colonial period. Its broad tapestry of farms, known today as the “breadbasket of Vermont,” produces beef, pork, poultry and eggs, honey, flowers and vegetables, much of New England’s dairy, and a wide variety of apples, peaches and berries.
This work requires a skilled workforce. My Jamaican workers are the best workers I could get for this job. They know all the elements of my farm. They know the quality standards of my farm and how to achieve that.
What this fertile valley can’t produce, however, is the labor needed to harvest the crops. At the end of each August, the apples at Hodges’ Sunrise Orchards reach maturity, and it is then that he requires a good 50 to 60 skilled pickers willing to work 10 hours a day, six to seven days a week, for six to eight weeks, through October.
Hodges has never been able to fill this need with American workers, who can secure year-round, or less physically grueling, jobs elsewhere.
“If we were willing to pay $20 to $25 an hour for that labor, maybe we would be able to get American workers to do that work,” Hodges says. Except, he says, “We wouldn’t sell any apples. . . . Would you pay $12 for a half peck [5 pounds] of apples?”
“If I was to go and be a good Samaritan and say, I’m going to pay that $20 to $25 an hour, then there might be some good Samaritans who say, That’s great, I want to support that, I’m going to buy his apples,” he says. “But I need an entire region to support that, from Florida to Boston to Texas. . . . It would require a monumental shift in the understanding of food quality, food production, and food economics.”
By using the H-2A visa, the only legal avenue to hire foreign agricultural labor, Hodges can reliably produce apples at market prices, selling them to supermarkets for $0.50 to $0.75 per pound wholesale. He grows upwards of 150,000 bushels a year, of Paula Red, McIntosh, Empire, Courtland, Honey Crisp, Red Delicious, Gala, and several varieties for hard cider. It is enough to support an extended family of eight and to hire 15 year-round local, American workers.
All told, Sunrise Orchards funnels more than $3 million into the local economy, through the purchase of farm services, farm supplies, and personal living expenses. A sizable portion of that economic boost comes directly from Hodges’ temporary migrant workers; as many as 12 non-farm jobs exist for every farm job, including those undertaken by H-2A workers.
And if the H-2A visa program didn’t exist? Hodges says he would stop farming.
“That program represents a legal method for businesses in our country to get temporary highly skilled, trained agricultural workers,” he says. “The program is not perfect, but it’s a very helpful, necessary program for my sector.”
Like many American farmers, Hodges’ family has been relying on migrant labor since the 1940s, when the U.S. brought skilled farm workers from Mexico and the West Indies to help fill labor shortages created by World War II. Many of Hodges’ workers return every year. He has known many since he was a child scampering through the fields.
The H-2A program is not cheap. Hodges says it costs him about $90,000 to hire 60 H-2A workers, or $1,500 per worker, an amount that includes visa fees and roundtrip transportation but not housing, which employers must provide. He estimates the two bunkhouses he built equate to an additional $700 per worker per season over a 20-year period. All these costs are in addition to wages, which the federal government sets annually for each state. In Vermont, the 2016 H-2A wage rate is $11.74 per hour.
In full, the extra cost of bringing in a migrant worker through the H-2A program adds about $4 to $6 to each worker’s hourly wage. But farmers are grateful for the high quality of work they receive.
“This work requires a skilled workforce,” says Hodges. “My Jamaican workers are the best workers I could get for this job. They know all the elements of my farm. They know the quality standards of my farm and how to achieve that.”
Furthermore, says Hodges, the program beats the alternative used by some farms: the hiring of undocumented workers, without government oversight or mandated safety and health standards. Such a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy “is a huge violation of human rights and a crazy approach,” he says.
That said, he believes the H-2A program remains in dire need of improvement if farmers are to continue to stay in business.
Under the current program, for example, farmers must apply at least 60 days before harvest for the exact number of workers they will need. For Hodges, that’s at least 60 days before he knows how many apples his trees are going to produce and how many pickers he’s going to need.
The requirement makes sense in theory; the U.S. government wants to ensure each job is advertised in time to give U.S. workers the opportunity to apply. In practice, however, the provision serves little purpose since U.S. workers rarely do apply for the jobs. Hodges recruits across the East Coast and receives just one or two applications a season from American workers. Those that do show up to work invariably quit within three days.
One year he under-estimated the crop, ended up with too few H-2A workers, and “had to overwork people, and leave crops on the ground,” he says. “I’m never going to make that mistake again.” Now he requests more workers than he needs, a system that prevents crop loss but makes for an inefficient payroll.
“We’re really kind of cornered into knowing numbers of workers and guaranteeing work for a commodity that’s controlled by Mother Nature,” Hodges says. “What I would like is to have more flexibility to bring workers up if you need them. It only takes a couple days. Why can’t we have that flexibility?”