Down a rough dirt road on a farm near Byron are five old houses occupied by 25 men known to few in Middle Georgia, but they play an important role in the local economy.
Without them, some say, the local peach growing industry couldn’t survive.
They are all residents of Jalisco, Mexico, and travel 1,743 miles each year by bus to work in the Dickey Farms orchards in Crawford County on a temporary visa, known as H-2A. They are among an estimated 400 H-2A workers in Middle Georgia this year working in all of the orchards and are among about 60 employed by Dickey Farms.
Robert Dickey, owner of Dickey Farms, said without H-2A, peach growing here would likely consist of just a few small pick-your-own orchards. In a good year, Georgia’s peach crop generates about $50 million, with most of that coming from orchards in Middle Georgia. Packing houses at Dickey Farms and Lane Southern Orchards are also popular tourist attractions, and peaches generate other associated jobs, such as truck driving.
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Although H-2A has not been a target of President Donald Trump’s immigration reform efforts, Dickey has concerns about the program being restricted or even eliminated.
“I lay awake at night worrying in the fall and in the spring if something were to happen, if the border (were) to close, if this program were to get halted in some way, I’d lose everything I own,” he said.
Jeff Cook, the county extension agent for Peach and Taylor counties, and the peach agent for the area, said other growers feel the same way about the H-2A workers.
“We couldn’t grow peaches without them,” Cook said. “From pruning, to harvesting to running the packing shed, you cannot find domestic workers who will work that hard. About 85 percent of these guys come back year after year.”
An H-2A employer is required to first offer the job to locals, and it is advertised through the Department of Labor, but Dickey said he rarely gets locals who want to do the work. Those who try it don’t usually stick with it, but he does have a couple of Middle Georgians. He has plenty who want drive the tractor but not do the hard, physical work.
‘It was terrible’
On a hot, sunny July morning, Armando Rubio Garcia wiped sweat beads from his forehead in the shade of a peach tree at Dickey Farms. Clad in baggy cargo pants, a long-sleeved checkered shirt and a folded bandana tied around his forehead, the 44-year-old has picked peaches in these orchards for eight seasons.
He is among the Jalisco natives who work for Dickey Farms. The first time Rubio Garcia left home was hard, he said in Spanish. A Telegraph reporter translated.
“Sometimes I feel a little stressed because I don’t see my family,” he said.
But after eight years, he’s used to it.
Rubio Garcia said it’s hard to find a job that pays well in Jalisco. There are jobs in the corn and sugar cane fields he said, but they barely pay enough to cover the groceries. Here, Rubio Garcia said, he can make in one day what he can earn back home in a week.
The Dickey Farms workers are paid a minimum of $10.50 per hour.
For some, the long hours in the heat would be unbearable. Rubio Garcia doesn’t mind the manual labor, though.
“It’s not very hard,” he said, cracking a smile. “The work in Mexico is harder.”
Dickey said he has been using the H-2A program for over 20 years. Before that he relied on a motley crew of locals who didn’t have a regular job and weren’t very reliable. Some were drug addicts or had physical or mental problems. People would just show up for picking, and sometimes Dickey would have too many workers and sometimes too few. That’s not good for a crop as perishable as peaches, which has a small window to pick at just the right time.
“It was terrible,” he said.
The problem with peach work is that it’s seasonal, and it’s difficult to find a large number of people to work temporarily. People who have a good work ethic tend to already have a year-round job.
Housing is rough, but workers don’t mind
In the orchard on Tuesday, the 25-worker crew from the farm houses weaved through the trees in a rapid but fluid ballet of picking. They steadily returned to a trailer towed by a tractor, dumping their payload from sacks hanging over their chests.
Roberto Carrazco, the field supervisor, said each man will typically pick about 10 bushels an hour. Carrazco has been with Dickey Farms for over 30 years and was there back in the day when locals did the picking. He said the locals would bring in more like two or three bushels an hour. Often after a day or two, they had enough and wouldn’t come back.
Carrazco is also from Jalisco but is now a U.S. citizen and is bilingual. Each fall Carrazco and his brother return to Jalisco and recruit H-2A workers to come work for Dickey Farms. They originally signed up about 80 workers to come this year, but a late freeze damaged the crop, and they had to cut the number to 60. Those left behind were not happy, Carrazco said. They had about 100 people who wanted to come.
As required under the H-2A law, Dickey Farms pays for the workers to be bused up and back each season, and they are also given free housing. The U.S. Department of Labor, which manages the H2-A program, inspects the housing.
“They get pretty good treatment up here,” Carrazco said. “That’s why they’ve been coming back for so long.”
Dickey said only rarely do any of the workers not show for the return trip home. He said once they do that, they lose the ability to be an H-2A worker in the future, and he said about “99.9 percent” would not want that to happen.
Carrazco said he has never had one of his guys arrested. For one, he said he only recruits non-drinkers. Also, there doesn’t seem to be much opportunity for them to get in any trouble. With their housing in an isolated area, their only transportation is the vans that take them back and forth to the orchard. About the only time they go to town is to visit the grocery store, the bank to cash their paycheck and maybe a restaurant on Sunday.
The housing would seem rugged to many people, but the workers said they don’t mind it. They sleep on twin-bed mattresses on metal frames, with between two and five men in each room. They have a kitchen where they cook their meals, including their lunch to take to the orchard. They also tend a garden with tomatoes, peppers and watermelons in the yard. There’s a TV connected to a satellite dish in the common room, but they can’t afford to pay for service, so they spend their free time in the evenings doing chores or kicking around a soccer ball.
The workers get up at dawn to head to the orchard, so they all hit the sack at around 9:30 each night. After a long day of hard labor in the orchard, 26-year-old David Yonatan Vargas Rubio said no one has any trouble sleeping.
“We all fall asleep at the same time,” he said with a laugh.
And at 4:30 the next morning, they all rise from their slumber for another day of picking.
‘I think it’s a disaster if you ask me’
Solimar Mercado-Spencer, senior staff attorney in the Farmworker Rights Division of Georgia Legal Services, represents H-2A workers in complaints against employers. She said there is rampant abuse in the program but not from peach growers. She said her office gets few complaints from H-2A workers of peach growers because the growers manage their H-2A programs themselves. Other farmers rely on middle men to supply H-2A workers, and those are the ones who tend not to follow the rules.
“I think it is a disaster if you ask me,” she said. “We have pictures of terrible housing. We see a lot of bad.”
Her office is federally funded to represent H-2A workers with complaints, but she said there have been more complaints than the office can handle.
Although peach growers are the predominant users of H-2A workers in Middle Georgia, there are big users in other areas of the state. Most any crop requiring significant manual labor uses H-2A workers, including onions, blueberries, watermelons and others.
Mercado-Spencer said a farm worker who died of a heat stroke in Moultrie recently was an H-2A worker.
She said a good reform to the program would be to give H-2A workers freedom to change employers. Currently they come to the U.S. under contract with a single employer, and that cannot change. She said that makes the workers afraid to come forward about abuses.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/samantha.max.9 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org. Grant Blankenship of Georgia Public Broadcasting contributed to this report.