Harvesting hardships 

Hard toil in the cherry orchards of Western Montana

A bumper crop has migrant workers and Flathead growers struggling through an otherwise bountiful season

Standing in the shade of a tarp strung up outside the Montana Migrant Council's mobile health clinic, a young Mexican man waits for his dental appointment.

He's been coming from his home two states away, in Washington's Yakima Valley, to harvest cherries on Flathead Lake, he says, for seven of the eight years he's lived in the United States. He sends money to his parents, who still live in Mexico, and tries to visit them once a year.

Within a week, chances are he will return to Washington, perhaps to a job harvesting asparagus; when the apples ripen, he'll pick them as well.

Photo: Jeff Powers
A young immigrant waits to see the dentist. He sends the money he makes as a migrant farmworker home to his parents in Mexico.

For now, he eagerly awaits his appointment. He says he likes Montana. Harvesting cherries, he explains, is easier than picking those other crops, the site is beautiful and the medical care and other resources are better in Montana than Washington.

But life is rarely easy for the migrant laborers who come to Montana. This summer's crop reckons to be the largest since the big freeze of 1989, with growers estimating that they will pull four million pounds or more of cherries off the trees.

The season's abundance has brought more laborers than normal -- at least at the season's outset, the numbers had almost doubled from last year's about 200 registered workers -- and increased the need for health and education services. The influx has also enticed the federal agents whose jobs are to weed out undocumented workers, so-called "illegal aliens."

For every healthy young man in need of a teeth cleaning, there are kids whose language skills need work. And among older migrants, there are chronic health issues -- such as hypertension and diabetes -- which can be found in many of this nation's underclass communities.

On this sunny late-July day, in the grass outside the Finley Point cherry processing plant where the clinic resides for the time being, children play under a tent. Their parents fill out forms for food and gas vouchers. At night, some sleep on blankets under trees, while others stay in campers or in cars converted to make-shift bedrooms. A little boy covered with scabs gets his hair washed by a nurse while his mother holds him.

By Thursday, July 28, just over halfway through the second week of the harvest season, more than 400 clients had registered with the various groups set up to help migrant workers: the Montana Migrant Council, the state Migrant Education program and the office of Rural Employment Opportunities.

Headquartered in Billings, the Migrant Council has two satellite health clinics set up in Western Montana: one near Bigfork, the other on Finley Point.

Migrant Education, which holds classes at the Polson Middle School for small children in the morning and adolescents in the evening, registered nearly 300 students for the English lessons and child care available at the school. Recruiter David Wilson, who has worked with Migrant Ed in the Flathead for five years, says the agency had to rent a second bus to accommodate all the kids this summer.

One hundred or so children, Wilson says, have attended classes so far. Many infants and toddlers come to school with their siblings, despite the fact that they are too young for classes. In this setting, they are fed and given medical care, and have people to watch over them while their parents work.

In the evenings, a handful of older students, who top out at about 20 years old, try to get up to speed on reading and writing English so that they can complete high school, Wilson says. It's his belief that these classes might enable some of them to break the cycle of poverty they were born into.

"This is a way to get a leg up," Wilson says, explaining that middle-class Mexicans are generally not the ones who come to this country to pick fruit. "In Mexico, you can't make the same money in the same time."

A swift cherry picker can make up to $12 per hour, according to orchard owners and foremen. Pickers are paid by the 20-pound box -- $3 to $4, depending on the market. Most collect the cherries in plastic buckets, which they sling from their shoulders as they move up and down ladders among the trees.

The fastest can fill these buckets in about 15 minutes, breaking off small clusters of cherries, then descending from their ladders to fill the boxes, which are in turn dumped into pallets and taken to a sorting plant for sorting, cleansing and packaging.

The painful rebirth of the Flathead cherry

In the heat, dust and blaring tejano music outside the Flathead Cherry Growers Association's processing and packing plant last week, shirtless workers scrambled to unload the apparent benchmark crop off trucks, and into the plant's system of conveyor belts, cooling tanks, and automated and human sorting systems.

Most are not migrants, but local seasonal employees. As fast as they work, though, the truckloads come in faster. "In terms of the local economy, [cherries are] not going to make us or break us, but to my mind any agriculture we can keep here is good agriculture."
-Vince Rubino, Flathead Valley Cherry Growers Association

Association manager Vince Rubino estimates that the plant receives more than 100,000 pounds of fruit daily, and that more than one million pounds of Grade A cherries have been processed by the first week in August -- the largest crop since the killing freeze of 1989 wiped out half the industry.

In his first year in charge of the plant, Rubino says, he's had to contend with more cherries than he knows what to do with. He's also had to deal with frustrations within his association, which includes about two-thirds of the growers around the lake.

They say nothing succeeds like success, but this year's crop has been almost too successful.

Many pickers have been idle since about a week and a half into the season, as the outdated plant backed up. The glut also depressed prices, a condition exacerbated by competition from Washington's uncharacteristically late cherry harvest, which dumped 26 million pounds of fruit on the market just as the Montana picking began.

Photo: Jeff Powers
Vince Rubino's first year at the helm of the Flathead Valley Cherry Growers Association has been a difficult one, due in part to a glut in the cherry market.
"These are the most beautiful cherries we've seen in a long time," Rubino says. "That's the good news. The bad news is that with that abundance you get a supply-and-demand problem. It's definitely a buyers' market right now."

Plus, Rubino says, while the association's equipment is still valued at more than $750,000, the plant is more than 40 years old. There's no way growers, just now recovering from the freeze which destroyed nearly half their trees, can afford to replace it with the high-tech machinery used by competitors, he says.

But the final blow, Rubino says, has been the weather: "The biggest enemy of the cherry, once it's picked, is heat."

And this year, there's been plenty of heat. Last year, rains during the first few days of the season slowed production to a crawl, splitting much of the fruit before it got off the trees. This summer's swelter, though, posed the opposite problem.

As a result, pickers had to ease up half-way into what would normally be the harvest's peak weeks -- many taking off for places with more work. "This year, we've made some extremely painful temp- erature-management decisions," Rubino says, "such as stopping picking earlier in the day to get the cherries into the packing system faster."

As of August 1, dozens of one-ton pallets sat in a cold, weakly-lit storage room, waiting for the plant and the market to catch up.

"That's my dilemma," Rubino said. "They're not sold. They'll sell, but we're going to take it in the shorts."

In the end, Rubino expects a 20-pound box to wholesale for between $16 and $19. Each pound sold will gross about 70 cents for an individual grower, and Rubino hopes the total gross will average out to about $108,000 for every day of harvesting and packing.

"This is an extremely tough and delicate business," he said. "It's not for the faint of heart. In terms of the local economy, it's not going to make us or break us, but to my mind any agriculture we can keep here is good agriculture."

It's been a busy season for independent growers as well. Jerry Bowman, whose family runs a 70-acre operation near Bigfork, says that at this point in the season, it's all he can do to keep up with the ripening fruit. He explains that he and his wife dropped out of the association about a decade ago, invested money in setting up their own rudimentary processing equipment, and expanded their crops.

The white-haired Bowman says he's hired about 60 workers this year, and he anticipates keeping them busy for the next couple of weeks.

Pickers stay in a small village of mobile trailers set up on the Bowmans' property, and as the day heats up, most of the migrant workers can be found in the shade. Bowman says he's had no problem with illegal immigrants, and for each picker who has dropped out he's easily found a replacement.

His wife and two daughters have been helping process orders and enforcing quality control. As they prepare to ship their cherries across the country, the Bowmans are haunted by reports of a pending UPS strike, which came to fruition just days later.

Back at the plant, Rubino looks out over the 120 workers (most of whom live in Montana and some of whom, he says, are chronically under-employed) on the rattling packing line and adds, "These jobs are just temporary jobs, but we pay better than minimum wage -- $5 an hour. If they're with us the whole time we pay a quarter bonus; so some make $5.25 an hour.

"A lot of people just need work. If they can make $500 or $1,000 here, that makes a difference."

Return of the Federales

The resurgence of the Montana crop drew not only hundreds of workers to the Flathead, but also the attention of those charged with cracking down on illegal immigration to the United States.

According to Ed Nelson, an assistant chief for the regional U.S. Border Patrol in Spokane, his agency assembled a seven-member team under the direction of Whitefish-based agent Jerry Gillies. Using the Polson Super 8 motel as headquarters, the team apprehended 38 undocumented workers who'd come to pick cherries.

The operation, which lasted 10 days and wrapped up at the end of July, raised eyebrows in an area that hadn't seen intense immigration enforcement for nearly a decade. Before the freeze, Nelson says, his agency launched similar sweeps every year.

"This has been an ordinary part of our operations in the past," he said. "In future years, as the cherries become more productive, this is the sort of activity you'll be seeing in that area."

The agency's presence was particularly visible in mid-July, as the harvest began to climax. Using a system of road blocks and spot checks, the agents examined the papers of workers on their way to and from the orchards.

They didn't make a practice of going into the migrant camps which dotted the Finley Point area, Nelson says, but they did stop and question "suspicious types" around the lake at their discretion -- a description that Nelson says encompasses too large a list of characteristics to elaborate on.

"Our agents are trained to use reasonable means to determine whether someone might possibly be an illegal immigrant," Nelson says, acknowledging that some legal residents and American citizens were stopped and checked. "Of course, sometimes innocent people do suspicious things. That's unavoidable."

Although Nelson doesn't provide exact figures, he says that most, but not all, of the illegals came from Mexico. "We do see people from Europe, from the United Kingdom, from Norway," he says. "Almost every year, we arrest people from Canada."

Nelson considers 38 arrests well worth the effort, which he characterized as part of the core mission of the Border Patrol. "This is the very root of immigration law," he says. "These laws are made to protect America from undesirables, criminals and terrorists, and to protect American labor, preserving jobs for American citizens and legal aliens. There are people who have the legal right to live and work in this country. There are people who want to work and can't find jobs."

He adds that employers aren't capable of enforcing the laws themselves. "For most employers, this is a supply issue," he says. "They may check documents, but they aren't trained, and they don't know a counterfeit document when they see it."

Caring for the wanderers

By the third week of this summer's season, many orchard owners on Finley Point had called it quits. With the competition from Washington, Rubino says, the brokers just weren't moving the fruit fast enough. While these complications have been no fun for growers, an aborted season could be at least as serious for the workers depending upon jobs provided by the crop.

Those who work with migrant issues point out that there are laws intended to protect workers from being taken advantage of; so that they don't have to travel long distances, for instance, only to discover that promised jobs have disappeared. But in the Flathead, this does not seem to be much of an issue.

The crew bosses, sometimes migrants themselves, return each year, having selected the hardest workers from the small Chicano communities throughout eastern Washington and Oregon (extending down into California in some cases) to do the jobs.

While many of the workers are young men, quite a few travel with their families, according to social workers. The Hispanic tradition, they say, has an expansive, multi-generational definition of family. All members travel together and help out -- not just with picking fruit, but also with cooking, transportation and baby-sitting.

Ignacio "Nacho" Martinez runs two crews for Brian Campbell, a Flathead grower whose family's blue and yellow sign is displayed prominently at the turnoff from Montana Highway 35 to Finley Point. In addition to his own crops, Campbell helps oversee the harvest of several orchards on the point, including former NFL star Howie Long's.

Martinez and Campbell have been working together for the last several years. Martinez, 35, has lived in the United States for nearly three decades and says he has been working the cherry harvest for almost 20 years. He recently became a U.S. citizen. He's got about 50 people working for him, and as of August 1, he and Campbell began fretting over the slow down, and the need to send some folks home.

Fortunately for many of those pickers and their families, the Rural Employment Opportunities was on hand, distributing vouchers for food and gas, and making sure the migrants and other seasonal workers knew their options.

An individual who qualifies for aid can receive a voucher for $30 worth of gas or food; a family of two can get $40; three are eligible for $50; and four secure up to $60.

These workers don't receive unemployment when they're laid off, says the REO's Janeice Hamilton. And while there are classes meant to help workers shift into more permanent positions, she says, language difficulties and short-term work habits create serious obstacles to that transition.

Claudia Stephens, human resources coordinator for the Migrant Council, says that her agency tries to care for a target population of about 10,400 migrant workers, mainly by providing health care services.

That's not much when compared with the approximately 125,000 farmworkers in Texas, she notes, but is significant for a state with Montana's population.

The Migrant Council, she says, has been providing health clinics for migrants and seasonal workers since the 1970s. In order to qualify for aid, workers must derive at least 50 percent of their income from seasonal agriculture jobs. Undocumented workers are not eligible for these funds.

The money for such services comes to the council and its attendant social work groups from the federal government. In addition to education and health care, the funds are used for job training to try to strengthen migrant communities through both direct aid and courses in job skills.

In Montana, Stephens says, her office has a budget of $65,000. The Migrant Council staff is assisted by volunteers and gifts from the community. A New York doctor worked a volunteer stint last year, according to Flathead clinic director Candi Stearns, and a local dentist supplied a case of toothbrushes.

Stearns runs down the list of medical services she and her crew offer from the converted RV they use as a clinic. The built-up vehicle acts as a school nurse's office, a low-tech emergency room and a referral service. They suture cuts, perform testicular and gynecological exams, test for tuberculosis and treat sexually transmitted diseases. [photo]
Photo: Jeff powers
Pauline Abrego comforts her son, Benjamin, as a health clinic worker examines sores on the child's head.

"For a lot of migrants," she says, "this is the only medical care they receive all year."

Stearns adds that while the bulk of the clientele is made up of Mexican immigrant families -- many of whom have lived in the U.S. for more than two decades, she notes -- about a quarter of the workers who work the cherry season in the Flathead are Anglo, or white Americans.

As workers pack up and hit the road in search of more fruitful employment, activities slow down as well at Polson Middle School on the other side of the lake. The classes are a few, small fragmented bunches of kids, alternately playing in the swings and slides, and working in the classrooms on their writing skills.

Photo: Jeff Powers
Maria Valencia, who has been coming to Western Montana for the cherry harvest for six years, gives English lessons to Adriana Ramirez.
The teachers express admiration for these young students, but they seem to be relieved that there are merely 25 or so children under their tutelage -- as opposed to the 90-plus that filled the halls with a mixture of English and Spanish just a week ago. Gone are many of the crying babies, and the few kids who remain seem comfortable in the cool air-conditioned class rooms.

According to Principal Carmen Grey, during the first two weeks of the season, more than 150 kids attended class at some point or another. They were fed breakfast, lunch and a mid-afternoon snack. The eight teachers and a number of assistants -- including a handful of Hispanic youth -- took the kids one day on a field trip to the National Bison Range at Moise, and the Flathead Reservation's People's Cultural Center.

"We provide the migrants with everything we can to make it a livable situation," Grey says, adding that there's a national infrastructure which enables various states to obtain the education records of most registered migrant students.

As for the briefness of the time students get to spend in the classroom, Grey remains nonplused.

After all, she notes, it's the nature of the life these people lead. They follow the work, and try to string things together between stops. It's her job, she says, and the responsibility of Western Montana communities, to provide what they can for these visiting workers who come to pick our crops.

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