Employers & Employment, Guest Worker Program, H-2A, Visas

Jamaicans Come to Hollis Each Year to Legally Work on Lull Farm

From NashuaTelegraph.com, Simon Rios, 12 Jun 2011.

[Hollis, NH] — When Lodrick Williams first came to New Hampshire, he thought Farmer Dave was crazy for saying the Earth was round.

Since that day 26 years ago – more than half a lifetime for this Jamaican farmer – Williams has dedicated eight months of every year to helping Lull Farm grow into what it is now.

“I would not be Lull Farm without the Jamaicans,” said Dave Orde, owner of the Hollis farm.

Orde, known colloquially and on bumper stickers as Farmer Dave, said thanks to the Jamaican workers, his farm is 10 times the size it was in 1985.

Sitting with two other Jamaicans in their quarters behind the farm stand, Williams said the respect is mutual.

“Dave’s one of the hardest-working men I meet upon, to be honest with you,” Williams said. “He’s not afraid to do anything that we would. You know, as a boss, he would join us in what we doing and make sure that things done the way he wants it to.”

The workers’ quarters at Lull Farm is home to eight Jamaicans over the course of a summer. After a day of work, they relax in a large open room with couches, a TV and a kitchen. At night, they sleep in one of two bedrooms.

For the past 25 years, their presence at the farm has been as consistent as the seasons. But it wasn’t always so.

In the 1960s and ’70s, errant hippies known as “black leaf harvesters” would arrive for the New England apple harvest.

“They’d bunk and tent and do the crop,” Orde said. “But when the black leaf harvesters started disappearing, that’s when the Jamaicans came.”

Williams and a compatriot were the first Jamaicans contracted by Lull through the H-2A visa program in 1985. Williams said when he first arrived, the farm’s vegetable output was minimal.

“We started out carrying five or six baskets of zucchini, summer squash, cucumber, tomato,” he said. “A very small field we started with when I start here. And we started to grow more and more.”

Now, he said, the farm’s veggies fills thousands of baskets.

“I grow up in farming,” Williams said with a rural Jamaican accent and smooth demeanor, “so that’s how I know about many of the things I face on this farm. It’s not like I never seen it before. My father was a farmer.”

But farming in the Clarendon parish of Jamaica isn’t lucrative enough to make ends meet, he said. For these workers, the annual exodus to New Hampshire is a product of economic necessity, much like the Jamaican labor is a necessity for the farms.

“It’s been a longtime routine that Jamaicans help the farmers a lot,” Williams said, “and through that, the farmers are dependent on them.”

Without the Jamaican workers, “I don’t think the farms here would carry on,” Williams said. “Not as well, because most of these younger head, they don’t look forward to getting their hands dirty. They look forward to get on the computer and try to figure out a way to make a living that way.”

Under the H-2A visa, employers are required to post job openings for a given period before the workers are allowed to enter the country each year.

Orde said that for the last 15 years, virtually no locals have been willing to do “heavy agricultural work,” with all the hoeing, reaping and stoop labor this demands.

“It’s backbreaking work,” he said. “It’s backbreaking work.”

Nationwide, some 30,000 workers are employed under H-2A. In a country where more than half the crop pickers are undocumented, H-2A is the only legal program for farm owners to access guest workers.

But Orde complained that the terms of the H-2A visa are constantly subject to political wrangling in Washington.

“At the present time, they seem to think because there’s so much unemployment in America, there’s no need for workers coming in to do agricultural work,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is the local population will not do this work. If they were to discontinue the program now, I would say we’d probably go out of business.”

The biggest issue for the H-2A holders this year is being posed by the Internal Revenue Service. Jamaican workers at Brookfield Farm across the street recently received letters from the IRS, some of which billed them for more than $3,000 in back taxes for the 2008 and 2009 seasons.

Williams said the IRS claims that since the workers spend more than six months in the States, they’re considered residents.

“That just wouldn’t be true,” Williams said. “A person who is a resident should be able to go and come freely as they want, and it’s not that way right now.”

For a man who has dedicated half his life to the growth of U.S. agriculture, Williams said he feels he has earned the right to a green card, the document granting permanent residence. Perhaps then he wouldn’t mind paying the taxes, he said.

As it stands now, these workers are obliged to stay in the States for the duration of their contract, and must stay on the farm with which they’ve contracted. Williams would like his family to be able to visit.

“We guys leave our family for eight months, and we sacrifice ourselves, sacrifice on their behalf, not seeing us, only hearing from us,” he said. “I want freedom for them.”

In spite of it, Williams appreciates the opportunity to earn a decent wage in this country.

“As they say, rolling stone gather no moss,” he said. “So I say, instead of a man go look for something else, which I might misfortune into, might as well I just stay right here and just settle my mind and just try to achieve.”

Source, audio, video, and photo gallery at: NashuaTelegraph.com, “Jamaicans come to Hollis each year to legally work on Lull Farm” by Simon Rios, 12 Jun 2011.

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