Seasonal change 

A low-cost health clinic has long helped migrant workers who arrive every summer to pick Flathead cherries, but shifts in the workforce have caused the clinic—and the local cherry industry overall—to adjust

On a Wednesday morning in mid-July, Emily Griffin cruises down Highway 35 on Flathead Lake's east side in search of farmers. At Zavala's cherry orchard, in Yellow Bay, she pulls her Subaru to the curb and approaches a group of people sitting at a table in the shade behind their roadside booth. She slides her aviator glasses onto the top of her head and introduces herself in Spanish to an older man named Ubaldo Zavala.

The family is originally from Mexico but has lived on the property year-round for 20 years after working as migrant farmers in California and Washington. They helped plant the first trees here. The orchard owner doesn't live in-state, so for all intents and purposes, the Zavala farm—by name and management—is theirs. Ubaldo's son, Roberto, manages the operation with the help of several siblings, their extended family and about 80 workers who have traveled from near and far for the cherry season.

"Me llamo Emily," Griffin says to Ubaldo. She talks with him for a few minutes, then pulls out a clipboard and explains that there is a medical clinic a few miles away and if he signs some paperwork, he can get his teeth cleaned or receive a health checkup for little to no money. Ubaldo laughs and shakes his head. "I don't know," he says. She promises it's quick—just his name and address and a signature grant him access to the service. Still unconvinced, Ubaldo calls his son on the phone to ask him about the fine print. Roberto knows about the clinic—several of the Zavalas have used it before. "Okay," Ubaldo says when he hangs up. He still looks unsure, but he scribbles his name on the line anyway.

"I basically just make them feel so uncomfortable that they eventually sign up," Griffin says, though clearly she's joking. "My pitch these days is, 'You're helping us help other people, so even if you don't want it, you're helping us keep providing the service. Most of the time, if you explain it, they'll sign."

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The clinic is run by the Montana Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers Council through a grant-funded program called Ag Worker and Health Services. Since its inception in 1972, it's relied on grant funding, volunteers and a staff that must constantly track down new patients. The program's mission is to provide health care to any agriculture worker in Montana regardless of income level and ethnicity. In the Flathead, that has traditionally meant helping a transitory population of Hispanic workers who arrive for a matter of weeks or months to pick cherries. It's a process that comes with a particular set of challenges.

Many of the workers are hard to find because they move from orchard to orchard throughout their time in the area, sleeping in on-site cabins, their cars or in tents under the same trees they harvested earlier in the day. Many speak only Spanish and some are wary about providing their names or signing papers. Like anyone, they're also a little suspicious when it comes to a clinic that provides nearly free health care.

"There's a kind of distrust of bureaucracy because the concept of getting something for nothing doesn't really compute," Griffin says. "People are inherently skeptical of that. [But] if one person endorses it, other people are more likely to drop their apprehension."

Griffin expects this sort of apprehension and she's seasoned when it comes to convincing workers of the program's benefits. But recent changes in the migrant workforce have created new challenges for Griffin and others who either help support or otherwise rely on Montana's seasonal ag industry. The number of workers traveling to the Flathead to pick fruit has dropped. For generations, families from California and Washington have "followed the crops" east to Montana, arriving just as the cherries become ripe for picking and leaving just as soon as the season ends. According to national data collected by the Department of Labor, these workers are now "a relative rarity" as most stay in one place year-round. In fact, the study found almost 75 percent of hired crop farmworkers are considered "settled," meaning they only work within 75 miles of their permanent home. That's a 30 percent change from just two decades ago.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MATT ROBERTS
  • photo by Matt Roberts

The result of this shift has far-reaching effects throughout the Flathead, and it's subtly apparent just from the scene at Zavala's 80-acre orchard. Four farmhands play cards at a table under ponderosa pines alongside a cluster of rustic bunkhouses and some John Deere tractors in need of repair. The cherry-picking season doesn't run much past July, but even so this is eerily quiet. Zavala explains that the migrant workers who were here earlier in the season have already left, in part because a brutal series of June rainstorms damaged a few orchards and sent them packing. The way of seasonal farming can be as fragile as the cherry.

Pablo Alcantar sits on the front porch of the Montecato Club waiting for his wife. He's been there at least three hours, but he seems content to rest on the bench where afternoon sunlight streams through the pine trees. He's already done most of his work for the day. As a migrant farmworker in the Flathead Valley, he spent his morning—from 5 to 11picking cherries in the local orchards. The afternoons are too hot for harvesting, allowing him time to drive his wife to the clinic where she can get tuberculosis therapy.

Alcantar ("Cantar," he says, "is to sing!") grew up in Michoacán, Mexico, but has spent his last 40 years working on farms across the U.S. For the most part, he lives in Washington where his family picks apples and other fruits, but each July he heads to Flathead Lake.

"I like it here," he says. When asked about the clinic he says, "Si, it's a very good place for us."

click to enlarge Ubaldo Zavala and his family did migratory farm work before putting down roots 20 years ago in the Flathead Valley. They now operate an 80-acre cherry orchard and roadside stand in Yellow Bay. - PHOTO BY MATT ROBERTS
  • photo by Matt Roberts
  • Ubaldo Zavala and his family did migratory farm work before putting down roots 20 years ago in the Flathead Valley. They now operate an 80-acre cherry orchard and roadside stand in Yellow Bay.

Workers like Alcantar make anywhere between $9 and $11 an hour, but for the most part they are paid on a piece rate$40 a bin. Workers can sometimes pick up to 15 bins a day, but if there's bad weather or a worker is injured or sick, there's no making up lost time. The window of opportunity for cherry picking in the Flahtead is fleeting, so those traveling through the area depend on resources like the clinic to provide preventive care so everything goes smoothly.

The makeshift clinic is housed in the Montecato Club, a community center at Finley Point. Inside the building, boxes of alphabetized patient files line the wall on folding tables. Seven folding chairs with hand-quilted cushions form a waiting room and off to the side is a small box of toys for children, including a giant stuffed duck as big as a St. Bernard. Another table serves as a donation area where, on this particular day, you can see several pairs of shoes, a stack of blankets, shirts and a can of Bush's baked beans. In the upstairs room of the club, cubicle dividers designate four exam rooms where practitioners can see each patient in a semi-private manner. A small lab allows staff to do blood panels.

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