New Jersey’s Dangerous Harvest

Thousands of migrant workers will soon arrive in the Garden State to pick fruits and vegetables during the COVID-19 pandemic. Can farm camps and packing houses be kept safe?
Blueberry pickers in the field

Art Galletta, a prominent South Jersey blueberry grower, is optimistic by nature, a trait he shares with many of his agricultural brethren. But this year he’s nervous — not about a good yield, but about a host of other challenges, specifically those that COVID-19 poses.

He has good reason to be concerned.

Galletta and his family own and operate the Atlantic Blueberry Co. (ABC), a thousand-acre farm in Hammonton, the so-called Blueberry Capital of the World, which his father started on a five-acre tract in 1935. For Galletta and the rest of New Jersey blueberry growers, it all comes down to an eight-week harvesting season from mid-June through mid-August. That’s when he finds out if the money he’s invested will provide a return.

This year’s crop is now in bloom, and Galletta says pollination is going well. He expects a better crop than last year’s. Growing is the easy part — if you dare to call any part of farming easy.  What’s worrying Galletta is the picking, the packing and ultimately what kind of market will be there at summer’s end. But it’s not just the bottom line that concerns him. He will be responsible for the health and safety of 500-plus migrant workers who will arrive next month at his farm.

Migrant workers, manual labor, COVID-19

It’s the fruit and vegetable farmers who require the most manual labor, and who are thus most threatened by the pandemic. Blueberry production, in particular, is both labor-intensive and time-sensitive. The berries must be picked at precisely the right time to remain fresh until they make it to market. The picking season here is short, and workers put in long days  to pick the fruit by hand and then pack it for shipment.

Every year, an estimated 20,000 migrant farmworkers — deemed essential workers — from Mexico, Haiti, Puerto Rico and Central America arrive in New Jersey to pick fruits and vegetables. The blueberry pickers start their season in Florida, where they are toiling now, and then migrate to Georgia, North Carolina and New Jersey before heading to Michigan. About 500 of them come to ABC Co.

“We know there have been several (farmworkers) that have tested positive down south (in Salem County),” state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Wednesday at the governor’s daily briefing. She also said a committee, comprising health, labor and agriculture officials has been meeting regularly, and “we have a full plan” for testing the farmworkers, which will be unveiled next week.

Gov. Phil Murphy cited Singapore as a cautionary tale at the briefing. There, an influx of migrant laborers recently caused a second surge of COVID-19 infections.

Persichilli’s announcement comes amid growing concern among the state’s fruit and vegetable growers about their ability to harvest their crop — and if enough labor will make it to New Jersey to get the job done.

“It could be a major problem,” said says Gary Pavlis, a Rutgers University professor and Atlantic County’s agricultural agent. “Being that New York and New Jersey is a (COVID) hotspot, will they want to come? … You won’t know until it happens.”

Jessica Culley, general coordinator for CATA, an immigrant advocacy group, thinks the blueberry farmers will be most affected. “I’ve heard from colleagues that Haitian workers, who often travel in family units, are reluctant to travel.”

Who will bring in the crop?

Even in good times, the availability of labor has become an evergreen issue, according to Robert M. Goodman, executive dean of agriculture and natural resources at Rutgers University. Add COVID-19 to the mix and it could determine the difference between success and disaster, he said, adding, “If you don’t have the labor, you’re in a very difficult state.”

At Atlantic Blueberry, the workers for years have slept in long, low concrete dormitories. They eat their meals in the farm’s commissary. Inside the packing house, they sort and pack the blueberries for shipping in close quarters. They work seven days a week — some of them 12 hours a day — in the race to pick the blueberries in their prime.

Galletta is cautiously hopeful enough workers will show, but he has a Plan B in place. “It’s a concern …. We’ll have to see what happens,” he said. “We’re making preparations to harvest mechanically, if we have to, though it’s not our preference.”

Normally, about 70% of Atlantic’s harvesting is by hand, Galletta says, because it produces higher-quality yields. He usually uses his 11 harvesting machines (which go for about $200,000 apiece) for the late season collection of the less-desirable berries, which are sold for various processed products, like ice cream and yogurt.

Harvesting machines cost about $200,000 each.

Almost all of the blueberry farmers now have this equipment, but predominately for the same purpose as Atlantic. Hand picking is still the preference and practice of New Jersey growers, according to Rutgers’ Pavlis, though he predicts the industry is clearly trending toward more reliance on technology, for a number of reasons.

“One way or the other, they’ll get the berries picked,” says Pavlis, another optimist.

Migrant farm camps, breeding ground for COVID-19?

Once the migrant workers arrive this year, there’s the new issue of worker safety during the pandemic. The coronavirus has hit the state’s prisons, nursing homes and long-term care facilities particularly hard. There are those who are concerned that migrant farm camps might be the focus of the next coronavirus spike.

Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) is one of them. He concedes that “we’re not fully prepared” for the arrival of thousands of migrant workers.

Migrant workers, many of them undocumented, travel in in crowded vehicles and are housed in cramped quarters, making them “especially vulnerable,” according to Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice. “In many situations, where a farmer or a labor contractor owns or controls the housing, the workers are too fearful of losing both their job and their home to raise concerns about their safety.”

Three weeks ago, 36 of 71 agricultural workers living in an East Wenatchee, Washington ag-housing facility tested positive for COVID-19. All 36, part of a field crew that was conducting pre-season work, were asymptomatic prior to testing. As of last week, state health officials also reported at least 240 agriculture and food production workers had tested positive for COVID-19 in nearby Yakima County. United Farm Workers and Familias Unidas por La Justicia have filed a lawsuit against the state, asking the court to demand that officials create strong emergency rules with enforceable standards that will ensure farmworkers across the state are consistently protected.

Health Commissioner Persichilli said she will be speaking by phone to growers early next week to share her plan for testing, as well as safety guidelines. It is not yet clear whether they will be mandatory, or merely suggestions.

Pro-active against pandemic

Galletta isn’t waiting. He has already reviewed safety suggestions from a variety of agricultural groups and put them in place. He says he has loaded up on masks and increased his hand-washing stations. More importantly, he has retooled his 10 dormitory buildings and packing houses to allow for necessary social distancing. He said he will conduct temperature screenings daily and has set aside one building to house workers who become symptomatic.

“Atlantic Blueberry is one of the big companies,” CATA’s Culley said. “They have the necessary money at their disposal … I would think this is may be common in some of the larger companies and less in the smaller companies.”

Asked if there is any plan for testing his workers, he said he is awaiting direction from state and local health officials. The Atlantic County Department of Health said they too are awaiting word from Trenton.

Persichilli said Wednesday the state will be working with Salem Medical Center, and has teams ready to put up testing tents on farms throughout South Jersey. “We’ll be working with the growers to make sure that we have a full testing and follow-up isolation and quarantine for all these” workers, Persichilli said Monday.

The state is partnering with several Federally Qualified Health Centers that historically provide health care services to the migrant community, DOH spokeswoman Nancy Kearney later added, when asked for further detail. “The FQHCs will use either tents or mobile vans to do testing. We are working with the FQHCs on logistics such as the PPE that they may need to do testing.”

Even defining the scope of the task at hand is difficult. No one knows for sure how many migrant workers show up each year. Persichilli has said 12,000 to 15,000. CATA estimates it’s 20,000 to 25,000. The Southern Jersey Family Medical center, estimates it to be more than 30,000.

Sorting blueberries by hand

But Culley’s concerns go beyond testing — like the workers’ access to health care if they become ill. “We have two federally qualified health care centers (in South Jersey) with migrant programs, which I imagine are and will continue to be totally overtaxed.”

Blueberries in his blood

In the early 1960s, when he was 8, Galletta started pitching in on the family farm, nailing wooden slats on the blueberry crates before they were trucked away. He hasn’t stopped working since. As he grew, he watched his farm expand to become the largest highbrush blueberry farm in the world, which helped make New Jersey the No. 1 blueberry producer in the world. And he watched as New Jersey slipped to No. 4 or No. 5 in the country, depending on the year, and the U.S. drop to No. 5 in the world. As a result, Galletta has watched his margins decline slowly but steadily in recent years.

“We became the victims of our own success,” Galletta said. The South Jersey growers refined their techniques and process to a point where it could be replicated elsewhere. His father, “Duke” Galletta, worked closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to grow and evaluate the test trials of many varieties that the USDA bred. Now, Washington State is the leading U.S. producer, and countries such as Sweden, Netherlands, France and Mexico.

Still, Hammonton calls itself the Blueberry Capital of the World. And for good reason. New Jersey produces about 40 million to 50 million pounds of blueberries annually, generating $60 million to $70 million in revenues. About 80% of New Jersey’s blueberries come from Atlantic County’s 56 farms, all of which are in or just outside of Hammonton.

None of them know what the blueberry market will look like this year. It’s always a moving target, but now it is exponentially more unpredictable.

“Let’s face it: all of our commodities are going to suffer if the economy has been truly paralyzed,” said New Jersey Farm Bureau Executive Director Peter Furey. “The labor component (in the produce sector) is probably the biggest question right now. ”

Then, there’s the painful loss of revenue from restaurants, schools and other food-service outlets that have closed down and will be limited when they reopen. How soon restaurants open is a huge concern for many farmers. The fact that Gov. Phil Murphy extended the state of emergency an additional 30 days is not reassuring. Furey says produce farmers in New Jersey will take a 30% hit from these outlets. They will have to scramble to fill that hole elsewhere.

And that’s not an easy task. Packagers and distributors that specialize in the food-service sector are now feverishly shifting their operations to different venues. That type of transformation does not happen overnight.

Blueberries on conveyor belt

“The problem is we don’t know how long this is going to go on, said Robert M. Goodman, executive dean of agriculture and natural resources at Rutgers University. “We don’t how long this is going to be problematic in the fields … People are really nervous about whether the supply chains they’ve been relying on will be available.”

“This is the stuff that makes farmers lose sleep at night,” Furey said.

Who’ll buy the blueberries?

Another factor is the reduced traffic in supermarkets, where blueberries are considered largely an impulse buy, Galletta notes. Fewer shoppers mean fewer impulse buys. Also, shoppers are arriving now at supermarkets with a list of essentials, and impulse buys have dropped.

New Jersey farmers have been suffering in general for the past couple of years, for a variety of reasons. “There were a half of dozen farms or so who said they were either selling the farm or taking the year off,” said Richard VanVranken, Atlantic County agent for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, who deals with vegetable growers. “There were a lot of fields that didn’t get planted this spring.”

Add Rutgers’ Pavlis to the list of agricultural optimists: “I’ve been with these guys for 35 years. There’s a new problem every year — frost, too much rain, crop disease, insects from China … They still seem to get  a crop every year … They never give in to defeat.”

“I work in Atlantic County where they gamble at both ends,” VanVranken said. “You never know where the odds are better — in the farm fields or the casinos.”

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