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A close call

County’s apple growers faced challenges this season, from early frost to immigration delays

As bad as the May 11 hard frost was for apple growers in Windham County, they faced a bigger problem when surviving varieties ripened two weeks early.

Two such growers, Harlow Farm in Westminster and Scott Farm in Dummerston, use a combination of local part- and full-time workers, plus a crew of laborers from Jamaica. Another, Dutton Berry Farm, depends on imported workers, all from Jamaica.

These farms’ imported laborers held visas that were valid for the customary ripening period — about two weeks later than what actually occurred.

Jamaicans, many of whom have been coming to Windham County for more than 20 years through the federal H-2A temporary visa program, are a familiar sight in orchards and fields in Newfane, Westminster, Dummerston, West Brattleboro and other locations. Most of the men come in March and go home in October; some stay through December.

But getting to know these workers is another, more elusive, matter.

Two visits to Dutton workers in their large old farmhouse in Brookline achieved very little other than friendly greetings and polite, but firm, refusals to talk about themselves and their work.

A visit around the dinner hour found a half-dozen of them cooking what looked and smelled like savory combinations of vegetables in a large kitchen. Others watched television in another room, and still others chatted in several of what appeared to be tidy bedrooms in the multi-room house.

No amount of effort to interview the men proved effective, including agreement from their employer, Paul Dutton, who said the men could do whatever they wanted. Liaison officers in the Connecticut branch of the Jamaica Central Labour Organization (JCLO), based in Washington, couldn’t break the silence. Neither could further conversations and e-mails with the senior liaison officer in Washington, nor the Jamaican Embassy in Washington.

Joseph Young, the executive director of the New England Apple Council, said he is not surprised by the workers’ wariness.

According to Young — whose association represents about 190 New England farms and, among other things, helps owners navigate the temporary visa process — the Obama administration has recently changed the rules, intending to discourage an imported work force in favor of using local workers.

But these same changes have snarled the already-tangled bureaucracies of labor and immigration agencies, Young said.

The new regulations, he believes, were in part responsible for the inflexibility shown by immigration officials when growers needed workers to harvest an apple crop that ripened early due to a hot and dry summer.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration issues, was asked to intervene. He did, temporarily solving the problem with a telephone call to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Alejandro Mayorkas.

“USCIS now is expediting the process for all apple growers with pending H-2A petitions for workers from Jamaica to have their visa applications settled,” Leahy spokesman David Carle wrote on Aug. 26.

But the thornier issues of a homegrown work force and its relationship to unlawful immigration remain.

Change in the weather

Earlier ripening crops were successfully harvested, but the midseason crops were decimated by cold weather.

Harlow Farm on Route 5 in Westminster lost most of its midseason apple crop when, on the night of May 11-12, temperatures dropped to 27 degrees.

Doug Harlow, a third-generation member of the farming family, said the hard freeze killed off most McIntosh, Macouns, Cortlands, Northern Spy and Empire apples, among others varieties.

Some early crops that had already pollinated, such as Jersey Macs, survived.

“Cold air runs downhill, and it fills up the valley like a pond,” Harlow said. “When you have a frost in the valley, especially on a clear, cloudless night, you get radiational cooling (when the surface of the earth and nearby air cool off more quickly). Clouds are like a blanket.”

He also explained that the farm’s strawberry crop was saved because it’s irrigated, and the act of freezing created enough warmth for the berries to survive.

Harlow said the farm, which has 15 acres in apples, employs local part- and full-time workers and some Jamaicans under the H-2A temporary visa program.

Certified organic in 1985, the farm runs a popular farm stand and cafe on Route 5, south of Bellows Falls.

A family affair

The Dutton Berry Farm began business in 1983. The farm is run by Paul and Wendy Dutton, and sometimes their four children, ages 7, 13, 17 and 20, when they’re not in school. 

The family lives in Brookline where, Dutton says, their huge greenhouse operations account for a third of the farm income, he said.

Apart from the greenhouses, the Duttons run farmstands and nurseries in West Brattleboro, Manchester and Newfane, where they sell their field crops, fruits and berries. They also manage 40 acres of tree fruits and 100 acres of, as Dutton says, “the other stuff, everything from asparagus to zucchini.”

Dutton has a 15-acre apple orchard in Windham, and a 35-acre orchard in West Brattleboro. He lost some apples in the frost, mostly from his small trees, he said. He grows 30 varieties, with McIntosh his customers’ favorite and Cortland coming in second.

The Newfane farm stand and nursery is generally jammed from early spring onward, attracting locals and travelers who come to buy plants, pies, cakes, cookies, bread (all made onsite), the field crops and bags of apples.

Dutton employs an all-Jamaican workforce, about 15 or 16 men, many of whom have been working for him for 20 years or more. He houses them in a large old farmhouse in Brookline.

“We have two new guys this year,” he said. “The first foreigners who ever worked for me, back in 1988, were Scots.”

The farm is not certified organic, but Dutton said his farm uses “low-spray integrated pest management.”

Apples with a history

Scott Farm, 571 acres on Kipling Road in Dummerston, is the upscale boutique of local apple growers. The property has been a farm since 1845, when it was owned by Rufus Scott.

“Our mission is to rescue historical properties in distress,” explained David Tansey, president and manager of Landmark Trust USA, which has owned the farm since 1991. Landmark is a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization that, besides managing 45 acres of orchards and other crops, rescues dilapidated historical properties.

Once repaired, the buildings are rented for vacations and events.

The trust owns four properties for rent in Windham County. Its holdings include Naulakha (“jewel beyond price”), Rudyard Kipling’s house, built in 1892 in Dummerston; the 1802 Amos Brown House, the oldest house in Whitingham; the Scott Farm Sugarhouse on the farm property, and the Asa Dutton House, built around 1840, also on the property.

Scott Farm has a multi-layered web site (scottfarmvermont.com) that describes in detail the 70 varieties of “ecologically grown” apples, including many heirloom varieties such as Roxbury Russet, Belle de Boskoop and Cox’s Orange Pippin. The farm also produces other tree fruit, including peaches, nectarines and quince, as well as berries and table grapes.

Pick of the crop

Typically, Tansey said, laborers from Jamaica work the Scott Farm crops.

On this particular morning, a quartet of laborers ride out from the Scott Farm on a pair of tractors and wagons to the section of the orchard they’ll be picking.

It is a job that requires a combination of gentleness and strength — gentleness to handle the apples without bruising them, strength to climb up and down ladders while lugging a heavy pail of apples.

The pickers use wooden ladders that narrow into an arch shape at the top. Carefully balancing the ladders in the crooks of the trees, they climb upward and pluck the ripened Empire apples off the branches.

They use a special plastic pail with a canvas bottom and a shoulder harness to keep it secure across their chests. When the pail is full, they descend the ladders and walk over to the large wooden crates on the wagons and gently empty their freshly picked apples into the crate.

It’s a process that is repeated dozens and dozens of times over the course of a day.

It’s a process that most apple lovers never see.

Fewer apples, better quality

Dutton said that the safest path for growers “is to grow varieties, some new and some old-timers like Spy and Baldwin.”

“Apples are tough to grow,” he said. “Deer love them, and you have to use mouse guards, otherwise the mice girdle the trees,” chewing off a ring of bark and in so doing starving the tree of nutrients.

Dutton emphasized that it’s all about retail: a grower can’t make any money selling wholesale apples, he said. He has significant storage space for his apples, which keep well at 32 degrees.

He said that people are always asking him what’s his favorite variety of apple — a dilemma, a little like asking who’s your favorite child.

Despite all the trials for growers this year, most are optimistic that 2010 will yield a profitable crop. According to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, growers are finding prices holding steady or increasing slightly in response to the national crop forecast, which is down about 6 percent from 2009.

Vermont projects 786,000 bushels, a 17 percent drop from last year and 14 percent below the state’s five-year average.

“Conditions in the spring made us a little nervous, but we’re delighted with how the crop is turning out,” said Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Roger Allbee.

“Growers can live with a smaller crop as long as the prices are reasonably strong,” he said. “The fact that the national crop is shorter than normal has helped keep prices high enough for the growers, but still very affordable for Vermont consumers.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #70 (Wednesday, October 6, 2010).

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