WASHINGTON – Jean Phillips had a problem. The Frederick County farmer couldn’t get help on her farm, and the workers she did hire were either unwilling or unable to do the kind of physically taxing work she needed done.
Rafael Fortuno had a problem, too.
He missed his family back in Mexico, but when he went home, he just couldn’t find a way to support them.
“Once you drink the water here,” Fortuno said, referring to the economic freedom he found in the United States, “you don’t want any other.”
Then, Phillips met Fortuno.
After one season, she realized she had a reliable worker. He got a boss who let him go home in the winters to see his family, then guaranteed him a job when he returned in the spring.
The Phillips-Fortuno partnership is being repeated on farms across Maryland, with farmers and seasonal workers from Mexico and other Central American countries forming long-term, long-distance and sometimes, personal relationships.
A state labor official said that unlike states with large agricultural operations, Maryland, with its small, family-owned farms, fosters more-personal relationships that farmers and migrant workers here have developed in recent years.
“That’s very typical in Maryland, that a crew has been coming to the same place for years and they are very happy,” said Carl Reavis, a Maryland Job Service official who works with seasonal and migrant labor.
Les Richardson, who raises greens on his Baltimore County farm, said he doesn’t even try to hire local laborers anymore. Foreign workers “like the work,” he said. “And we love having them.”
The competition for migrant workers is so fierce that farmers tell tales of waking up in the morning to find their camps empty, their crews lured away in the night by construction firms and labor recruiters.
The economics of the situation have made life better for workers like Fortuno and those he recruits from his hometown in Guanajuato, Mexico.
They typically earn about $7 an hour — the same amount some said they would earn in a day in Mexico. Rigorous state inspections, while bothersome to farmers, mean farm camp housing that Americans would recognize, with heat, electricity and modern plumbing. Workers are eligible for special health, education and other programs, and even undocumented workers can appeal for legal protection against exploitation.
But the picture is not perfect. About 40 percent of the 3,500 seasonal farm workers in Maryland are believed to be undocumented. Most of the workers speak no English, which can make them particularly vulnerable to workplace abuse and much less likely to complain about it, whether they are legal or not.
Stories of workers living in houses without bathrooms or employers simply not paying workers what they are due abound among advocates and farm workers themselves. But many workers are afraid to complain because they are afraid of being deported.
Sarah Paoletti, an attorney with Friends of Farm Workers in Pennsylvania, said she consistently has a hard time getting workers to tell her when they have grievances, even after she has established a relationship with them.
The work itself is still hot and brutal and repetitive and the jobs are thousands of miles from home. But they keep coming back, and Maryland farmers for the most part are happy to have them.
“Farming has become a bad word,” to U.S. citizens, said Robert Black, a fruit farmer in Thurmont. “They want to work in McDonalds with air conditioning and a radio.”
One Baltimore County farmer told of hiring a crew of day laborers from Baltimore who left their used syringes behind in her fields.
But the option of hiring foreign labor was not one all farmers jumped at. Besides the very foreignness of the situation, hiring migrants from other countries meant farmers had to deal with the government.
Phillips dreaded hiring Fortuno at first. But she put aside her nagging fear of government red tape and tried him out. By the end of that first season, she couldn’t understand why Fortuno, such a capable worker, had not settled down in one place.
“I told her the truth,” he said. “That I could never make it through six months without seeing my family.”
Phillips decided then and there to plan around Fortuno’s homesickness and together, they settled on two trips home per year — once before the harvest and then again in the winter, when the workload was light.
Black first hired Simon Gonzalez and his two sons to pick fruit on his orchard 15 years ago and, since then, there has been someone from the Gonzalez family — with its 10 brothers — working here from May to November every year.
Not only do those relationships guarantee that established workers will be back in the spring, those workers often bring new recruits with them from their hometowns.
Some Mexican towns are emptied of men during American harvest seasons, workers say, leaving mostly women, children and older men back home. Some villages, like the Gonzalez’s hometown of Hidalgo, are almost completely dependent on the income sent back by the men working in American fields.
Gonzalez’s 25-year-old son — who is also named Simon — has been working for Black for eight years. During that time, he said, he has sent $1,000 of the roughly $1,200 he makes every month home to his mother. He has built a two-story home and plans on getting married next year.
Every year, around November, the men pile into their “truckas.” Many drive back home in caravans, while others head to Texas or Florida for more farm jobs. The main crews, the ones that come back every year, often leave work clothes and radios behind.
But many, having tasted the water here like Fortuno, have started “settling out” — bringing their families and putting roots down here instead of trying to live in two worlds.
A few years ago, Fortuno brought his family up from Mexico. He is working this winter at a Frederick-area fast food restaurant, but has started playing with the idea of starting his own business, a mobile taco stand to take to construction sites at lunch time.
“He’s an amazingly smart person,” said Phillips. “If his life had been different, who knows what he could have done.”