‘It doesn’t feel safe.’ Inside one of the world’s blueberry capitals

Migrant farmworkers in New Jersey risk COVID-19 to stock your fridge.

Photograph by Katie Orlinsky, National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund
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Every summer, thousands of temporary agricultural workers and their families arrive in New Jersey for the blueberry harvest. The state produces 40 to 50 million pounds of the fruit each year.

Photograph by Katie Orlinsky, National Geographic Society Covid-19 Emergency Fund

In the middle of the summer’s worst heat wave, Rodolfo, a 25-year-old from the Western Highlands of Guatemala, stood among a long line of blueberry bushes at Glossy Fruit Farms in Hammonton, New Jersey. A white T-shirt wrapped around his face served a dual purpose: a shield from the intolerably hot sun and a mask against the coronavirus.

At 10 a.m., he had already been in the field for five hours, swiftly and methodically picking the biggest blueberries. After filling five plastic crates about the size of a school lunch tray, he carried them down to a rental truck where supervisors inspected for quality. On a slip of paper they punched a hole for each finished crate. Rodolfo (workers spoke to National Geographic on the condition that their surnames not be used) makes $5.15 a crate. The most he has ever made in a day, which normally lasts from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m., was $300, but that was not going to happen today. “It’s too hot,” he said.

Hammonton is the self-proclaimed “blueberry capital of the world,” with 56 blueberry farms located in and around the town of about 14,000 people. Every year an estimated 6,000 migrant farmworkers, the majority from Mexico, Haiti, and across Central America, arrive at the farms for the eight-week harvest. Harvest time varies, but generally begins in early June and ends by late July.

Blueberries are big business in New Jersey: the state annually produces between 40 million to 50 million pounds, 80 percent of which comes from the Hammonton area, amounting to roughly $70 million in annual revenue.

Farm work is one of the most dangerous and low-paying occupations in the United States. “Non-payment of wages, or really low wages…pesticides, vehicle safety, and workplace accidents” are some of the long-standing problems farmworkers face, according to Jessica Culley from Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), a nonprofit organization headquartered in New Jersey. COVID-19 has only made the job riskier. Social distancing is nearly impossible. A majority of migrant farmworkers live in crowded camps on the farms, sharing bathrooms and dormitory-style sleeping quarters. (In California, farmworkers are picking American’s food while facing fires, heat waves, and the pandemic—all at once.)

In May 400 farmworkers from other agricultural sectors in New Jersey tested positive, and at least two have died, according to the National Center for Farmworker Health. Since then, the New Jersey Department of Health has not released official data on COVID cases among migrant farmworkers. More than 14,000 people have died from coronavirus in New Jersey, and as of August the state still had the highest death count per capita in the country.

“People don’t see them,” said Linda Flake, CEO of South Jersey Family Medical Centers (SJFMC), one of the main health centers testing blueberry workers. “They see them but yet they are invisible. But they’re the ones who bring the food to our table.”

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A worker picks blueberries at Atlantic Blueberry in Mays Landing, New Jersey, where most workers live on site and earn between $10.30 to $13.20 an hour.

Lack of protection

D.D., a woman of Haitian descent, has been working at the same Hammonton farm every summer since 2002. “This year there’s not as many people,” she said. “They’re scared of coming because of COVID.” For those who are there, that means more work, more pressure, and little room to raise concerns about safety. At least half of the nation’s farmworkers are believed to be undocumented, and fear of being fired and deported is commonplace. “Many were scared to come even before the virus,” said one worker, referring to the current administration’s immigration policies and increased deportations by Immigrations Custom Enforcement.

D.D., her husband, and their three children travel from Florida for the harvest each year. She said they were tested for COVID-19 when they arrived, but did not receive daily temperature checks, as the state had advised. The New Jersey State Department of Health issued safety recommendations for farms in May, but farms are not required to follow them. “The document itself is a good one in most respects, but the implementation was left to the discretion of the farm employers and farm labor contractors, and there was no enforcement or accountability measures in place,” said Culley.

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Blueberry pickers fill plastic crates about the size of a school lunch tray with fruit, which are then inspected for quality.

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Plastic divider sheets hang between beds at a workers’ dormitory at Atlantic Blueberry. Such protective measures are recommended by the state, but not mandatory.

Some farms did try to follow the guidelines. Atlantic Blueberry in Mays Landing purchased extra buses, hung cloth dividers between dorm beds, set up additional hand washing stations, and arranged multiple visits from health workers. Others took a piecemeal approach. “Most of the workplaces I saw made no adjustments in terms of the housing. People were sleeping in the same close quarters as they always have,” said Culley, who visited over 29 Hammonton-area farms. Jimmy, who works at a farm in nearby Burlington County, said he was tested when he arrived from Florida in late June but hasn’t been offered any testing, temperature checks, or PPE since. “It doesn’t feel safe,” he whispered while sitting outside a men’s dormitory. The living quarters haven’t changed at all from the previous year, he said. The dorms are fully occupied, the beds close to one another, and dozens of men share the same bathroom. (Here's how COVID-19 spreads in public toilets.)

“They’ll hire anybody. But then they won’t take care of them,” said Edgar A. Huerta, an immigrant rights activist in Vineland, New Jersey. Huerta, a DACA recipient and former farmworker, introduced me to Jorge, 30, an undocumented worker from Mexico who caught COVID-19 while working at a Vineland farm.

“I was working, and my chest starting hurting really badly and I began to vomit,” said Jorge. After he tested positive for coronavirus, he remembers his boss saying, “How awful! When you’re better, come back to work.” He was declared COVID-free after a month and a half, and returned to the farm. “I worked for two hours, [then] they came up to me and said, ‘We’re very sorry, but you have to leave. The guys don’t want you here. They don’t want to contract the virus.’”

Since then Jorge has been looking for work. He received no sick leave or severance pay despite having worked at the farm for two summers. He, like the approximately 500,000 undocumented immigrants in New Jersey who pay up to $600 million in state and local taxes annually, did not receive stimulus payments or unemployment benefits from the CARES Act. A Department of Labor representative has been trying to help Jorge get partial sick-leave payment from his former employer. But Jorge’s phone bill is past due and his phone will soon be shut off. “I don’t know what will happen if I can’t keep making those calls,” he said. “I wanted to ask them for help with my phone bill, but I’m embarrassed.”

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Farmworkers and their children register at a COVID-19 testing and PPE distribution pop-up tent, run by Southern Jersey Family Medical Centers (SJFMC), the organization that has done most of the testing at area farms.

Laboring children

The hundreds of thousands of temporary agricultural workers who arrive in the U.S. each year often bring their children with them. Normally, these children can attend all-day, government-sponsored programs that provide free busing, three free meals, academic instruction, summer camp, and English classes. This year, programs were cancelled because of the pandemic. Parents can’t afford to stop working in the field, and many cannot afford childcare, so some kids end up staying at the migrant camp for up to 15 hours a day, with only an older sibling or a grandparent to look after them. “It’s boring. We don’t get to go swimming anymore, watch movies, color,” said D.D.’s 12-year-old daughter, who helped look after her younger brother.

Farmworkers who live in the region year-round were similarly affected, like Rosa, who has worked at a blueberry farm near Hammonton since she left Mexico 13 years ago. Rosa normally works in the blueberry processing plant, but this year she went into the fields because of the labor shortage. The hours were long, and with no camp programs available, her 12-year-old daughter Annie was left in charge of her two younger brothers.

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SJFMC healthworkers visit a cluster of farmworker homes after a resident reported experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. The on-site healthworkers act as translators as the residents communicate with doctors over the phone.

“I was just trying to keep [my little brothers] happy and not get stressed,” Annie said. “I would look up activities on YouTube… I’d try to remember what my kindergarten teachers would do with me.”

Some children even work in the fields alongside their parents. Child labor laws for agricultural employment vary by state, and in New Jersey minors over the age of 12 can work outside school hours for up to 10 hours a day, six days a week, as long as they have written parental consent or work on the farm where a parent is employed. Many of these children rely on state-sponsored night classes tailored for their unique schedules, which were also cancelled this year. “These children want to learn,” said Dory Dickson, director of New Jersey-based Migrant Worker Outreach, which is trying to fill educational gaps and improve conditions for workers and their families. “They have worked in the fields and they have seen the work take a toll on their parents. They want to finish school so they will have an opportunity to get a better job.”

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Children at a farmworkers camp in Atlantic County, New Jersey, carry backpacks and books given out by two outreach workers from the New Jersey State Migrant Education program earlier that day. The outreach workers didn’t want to leave donated items unused even though the program for children had been cancelled because of the pandemic.

One night at a large blueberry farm in Egg Harbor, kids of all ages gathered in clusters, waiting for Dickson. Most of their parents were still working or picking up supplies at Wal-Mart. When Dickson arrived, she handed out snacks, writing paper, and pens. The kids spent the next hour reading letters from pen pals and writing them back, an exercise Dickson hopes will help improve their English. “When schools were closed because of the pandemic, migrant children, many of whom do not speak English at home, missed the language exposure they would have gotten in a full day of school,” Dickson said. “Many of them will never become as comfortable with English as they would have in other circumstances.”

The pandemic has drawn attention to both essential workers and the nation’s food system, which Culley hopes can be an opportunity for change. “The role of farmworkers has been highlighted, in some cases celebrated,” she said. “[We’ve] been trying to figure out how to leverage this moment where it seems like there’s some recognition of the contributions that farmworkers make to our society.” (From a fast food manager to a Syrian refugee doctor, meet the workers still showing up for work.)

While empty grocery store shelves and mile-long food bank lines have become less prevalent than during the early days of the pandemic, advocates say essential workers and their families are still as vulnerable as ever. Eight states have issued mandatory regulations for protecting agricultural workers from exposure to COVID-19, and activists are fighting for New Jersey to pass the Farm Worker Epidemic Health and Safety Act, which will legally require testing and safety guideline compliance. Said Culley: “It’s time to make sure that these folks who are doing really important, critical work for our country are taken care of.”

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Blueberry Bill Farms, in Hammonton, New Jersey, restructured their harvest to downscale handpicking. “We knew before the season came in that … we just weren’t going to have enough men,” said farm owner Bill Mortellite. So he bought additional machines and found an unconventional labor source: his son’s college basketball team. “We had six to 10 big guys come in,” he said. “They did a great job.”