Who grows our food: A conversation with 'Police'

Seasonal H-2A Temporary Visa farm workers from Jamaica pick squash at Harlow Farm in Westminster.

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More than 11 percent of farm work in Vermont is accomplished by seasonal H-2A Temporary Visa farm workers, a majority of whom are Jamaican — an estimated 400 individuals. Established in 1986 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, the H-2A Visa Program allows agricultural businesses in the U.S. to hire temporary foreign workers for seasonal positions that they would have otherwise been unable to fill with domestic workers.

It's summer in Vermont amidst a global pandemic but that hasn't stopped folks from visiting their favorite farm stands and food co-ops to purchase local, seasonal produce they've waited all winter for. Armed with masks and hand sanitizer they peruse aisles of berries, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and greens — thankful for the bountiful harvest and those who are growing it. Who is growing our food? As part of Brattleboro-based Food Connect's series highlighting our local food chain and those that make it possible, we sat down with Police, Harlow Farm's dock master and local celebrity, to learn more about his experience living and working in Vermont as part of the H-2A temporary Visa program.

Police is a yard-name, or nickname, for Gerald, who previously worked in Jamaica as a policeman, and has been making the trip from Jamaica to the United States on an H-2A Visa for over 30 years. When he's back home in Jamaica, Police and his wife operate a shop where they sell bulk retail food items like flour, sugar, and cornmeal in addition to drinks and snacks, selling "Every likkle ting" says Police.

Vermont farm workers in the H-2A Visa program cultivate the fields every day, rain or shine, helping to grow and harvest the produce we Vermonters take so much pride in. Harlow Farm, Dutton Farm, Green Mountain Orchards, and Scott Farm are a few of the local growers whose operations rely on Jamaican H-2A farm workers. The workers are appreciative and grateful to be here, to work hard, and to be able to build opportunities for loved ones back home — especially during a global pandemic. Many of Harlow's workers have been making the annual trip for decades. According to Police, "it's just an every year routine — it's normal." Just like farming it's a seasonal cycle, they leave Jamaica in May, stay the summer in Vermont until the field's reaping has slowed, and then travel back to Jamaica in October or November. A cycle that is undervalued by the current administration, which deemed H-2A Visa holders as essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic while working to reduce their hourly wages.

Jamaicans on an H-2A Visa have a chance to work for an hourly wage that is not accessible in Jamaica. Reliable, well-paid work in Jamaica is like finding a needle in a haystack, so the opportunity to work in the U.S. for half a year allows these workers to "make life much faster. It's like more easier and faster once you come here, that is if you put that hard-earned dollar to use," says Police. A season's wage could go towards building or buying a house, paying expensive school fees for children, or saving money for the future — something a majority of Jamaicans are unable to do. "The wages can't balance (in Jamaica), sometimes your bills more than your wages it's a worldwide cry you know," he adds.

When asked if his wife was nervous about him traveling and working in the U.S. during the time of COVID-19, Police says, "well on this side (I feel safe) I would say the people in Vermont are more cautious." Back in early May, 17 Jamaicans began their annual journey from Kingston, Jamaica to Harlow Farm in Westminster, a small portion of the 4,600 H-2A Visa holding Jamaicans who travel to farms across the U.S. every year. Only this time, amid the global lockdown on international transportation, they boarded a plane chartered by the Department of Agriculture to ensure farms received crucial labor within the time-sensitive windows of agricultural production.

For Police and his coworkers, this journey included three flights and a bus to reach their final destination. What sounds like a long trip, especially when wearing masks to protect against COVID-19, is quite short when compared to what the journey looked like 30 years ago. When Police made his first trip to the U.S. as part of the Seasonal Farm Workers Program, it was a three-day road trip via Greyhound Bus from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. to Maine, where he spent several years working on apple orchards before transitioning to vegetable production in Vermont.

This long road trip showed Police and other H-2A

workers at the time the vastness of America. When asked about his first impression of the U.S. Police says, "It was like in the night when I get here and get on the Greyhound bus down in Florida ... but in the morning when it start to bright and the place light up I think wow, this is America that people always longin' and crave to come? Cause we were on the highway." When asked what he expected, he continues, "Well, pretty pretty pretty place with less we call it woodland back in Jamaica. We left bushes then and mountains and all that stuff We try and tell them (young Jamaican farm workers) that, they can't know America like we do cause you just take a plane and take another plane but you don't stop at the airport, you just take another plane. And then you come to Bradley and drive come up, you know, so it's not seeing America like how we did."

Rural Vermont is similar to the Jamaican countryside in its slower pace and rich green landscape. The farming, on the other hand, is quite different, with a majority of Jamaican farms being two and a half acres oftentimes situated on steep hillsides. Jamaican farmers rely on manual labor and hand tools such as forks and machetes to make the most of the land available. Police and I joked about attempting to drive the Harlow Farm tractors on Jamaican hillside farms, where they'd likely topple off the steep slope. Along with the differences in landscapes and tools, Jamaicans working in Vermont are exposed to many different crops; asparagus, lacinato kale, parsnips, and collards are unavailable from local street vendors and markets where most people do their shopping in Jamaica. The differences don't stop there. "In Jamaica," Police shares, "they don't really farm like out of book like how they do here out of book they do it like back in the days, like the Haitian stuff." Not to say that Jamaican agriculture isn't advancing; as an island in the Caribbean much of their agricultural focus is aimed on sustainable practices to deal with drought, crop blights, and effects of climate change.

What about life for Jamaican farm workers when they're off the clock? In Jamaica, there are shops dotted across every community where music blasts all hours of the day, and "in the night, people party," Police shares with a smile. A stark contrast to the quiet nights in Vermont. When asked if the men at Harlow Farm missed the vibrant nightlife culture back home Police answers, "I don't really believe so a hundred percent because you know they're working and that's the best part of it, they're working It's not home away from home, but you just have to make yourself comfortable. Work, come from work maybe cook and catch a shower," then wake up and do it all over again.

Jamaicans in the US on an H-2A Visa sacrifice time with loved ones back home, a country that's just a tiny dot on the map but known across the world for its music and culture, to contribute to our local food system. When asked how Vermonters can support the Jamaican farm worker community, Police responds, "So spread the word! They have been mingling with us over the years, so I guess they're supposed to know what Jamaican culture is like we don't want no one to feel uncomfortable."

As we enjoy the Vermont summer for all its worth, remember that the food you're sharing with your family was grown with love by people working to take care of their families too. How can we actively support and engage with all parts of our community during the new normal of social distancing? Although unable to gather the way we normally would, we can show our appreciation and support by engaging with Jamaicans when we see them, proudly embracing them as a part of our community, and taking the time to learn about their culture. As always, one of the most important aspects of community engagement is leveraging our voice and right to vote, keeping updated on laws related to H-2A Visas, and choosing to support farm workers.

Mary Bilecki is an Evacuated Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Before being evacuated due to COVID-19 in March, halfway through her two year service in Jamaica, she had been working with coffee farmers in Cascade, a community nestled in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica within the parish of Portland. Mary joined the Food Connects' Food Hub team over the summer to help bring local food from Harlow Farm in Westminster and other local food businesses to the community.

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