Early this spring, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs told township officials in the self-proclaimed “Blueberry Capital of the World” to make sure the farms they had cited for illegally housing workers in converted storage sheds came into compliance before the season started.
That meant installing sprinklers and meeting other fire safety rules by June.
But in May, another Garden State agency was telling the farmers that their storage sheds were fine.
That agency, the Department of Labor, which annually inspects worker housing, approved 11 farms previously cited by other agencies for construction and fire-code violations, according to documents recently obtained by The Inquirer through the state’s Open Public Records Act.
By mid-summer, six of the Labor Department-approved farms also would be cited for having illegal septic systems that failed to capture hundreds if not thousands of gallons of sewage each day — filthy water, cooking grease, detergent, and human waste that drained into the groundwater near the fields.
The Inquirer has also learned that the scope of the illegal housing went beyond the eight cases its earlier investigation found. At least 13 farms — about a quarter of New Jersey’s commercial blueberry farms — have been cited in the last 15 months for lack of residential permits and certificates of occupancy.
The 13 farms violated state construction and fire codes for illegally converting metal storage barns, known as “pole barns,” into housing for the hundreds of seasonal berry pickers.
All but one of the 13 farms, located in Hammonton and Mullica Townships, Atlantic County, and Winslow Township, Camden County, have gone through two consecutive blueberry seasons without coming into fire-safety compliance.
“Whatever it is on the regulatory side that needs to get done, we will get this done,” said Denny Doyle, chairman of the New Jersey Blueberry Industry Advisory Council, which represents blueberry growers in the state. “We want to be on the right side of this.”
Lawyers for blueberry growers and other farms are asking lawmakers to change state regulations to allow them to house workers in pole barns without sprinkler systems. Fifty to 100 workers may sleep in bunk beds packed into a huge shed. They are not supposed to smoke inside, Doyle said.
Meanwhile, state and local agencies have not pursued fines, but instead sent reminder letters to the farms requesting that they comply.
This past spring, in advance of the growing season, inspectors from the Department of Labor checked the worker housing at 119 farms to make sure it was “acceptable” for seasonal workers. This state agency follows looser federal rules, which say farmers need to provide shelter from “the elements,” beds that are above ground, clean water, and first-aid kits, and only require fire extinguishers, not the sprinkler systems the state mandates for large residential facilities.
“Standards that we cover are just the federal standards,” said Abdiel Custodio, a department supervisor for the South Jersey region.
The state labor inspectors work from a list with nearly 100 checkpoints: Is there adequate drainage? Is the ceiling at least seven feet high? Is there 50 or more square feet for each person in sleeping rooms?
The checklist also asks whether there is a septic tank or septic system. If so, the inspector checks yes.
“If there is leakage or anything, that is not our jurisdiction,” Custodio said. “We are not trained for that. We are making sure there is a tank there.”
Following the federal rules, the state labor inspectors approved housing at 11 farms that had outstanding violations from local towns for illegally converting storage sheds into housing units, structures packed with bunk beds, no indoor toilets, and no fire sprinklers as required by state code. (The other two farms were not inspected by the state Labor Department this year or last.)
Custodio said his inspectors would not know of those violations, which are outside their purview.
As for any leaking septic systems, that would be the jurisdiction of the county health department and the state Department of Environmental Protection.
In July, the DEP and the Atlantic County Health Department conducted a joint raid and found six farms with malfunctioning or overflowing septic systems.
“Upon arriving at the camp, it was observed that ground in the center of the site was saturated. The large area of saturated soil and puddled water revealed evidence of a grease layer and a strong odor,” a state DEP report said of a July 9 visit to Vaccarella Farm in Mullica Township.
To find the source of the filth, inspectors flushed colored dye through sinks and other outlets and discovered that dirty water was discharging into the ground from a hole in the kitchen and shower building.
The inspectors issued a water pollution violation to owner Anthony Vaccarella and ordered the farm to get a state septic permit.
Two days later, inspectors followed up and found that a blocked pile had been cleaned out and the pollution from the kitchen had stopped.
Other farms, such as Carmen Merlino Farm and LoSasso Farm, had similar violations that were remediated within a few days, sometimes as easily as having septic tanks pumped out and the waste carted off.
The DEP ordered the six farms to apply for a septic permit within 30 days of their July violations. None has done so. The permits would result in annual inspections.
Of the 13 farms issued violations for illegally using storage sheds for housing, five were in Winslow Township, next to Hammonton but in Camden County.
The Winslow Township construction official ordered the five farms to obtain residential permits, which requires fire sprinklers, and certificates of occupancy before workers could live in the pole barns during the 2019 blueberry harvest. Three of the owners asked for time to comply.
“I am still in the process of gathering pricing and engineering information for the fire suppression system,” Neil H. Pastore III of Pastore Orchards wrote.
Big Buck Farms and Bluebird Farms also asked for extensions. None of the three returned calls requesting comment; nor did officials at the township’s construction office.
Because all 13 farms are within the protected Pine Barrens, they also must get approval from the Pinelands Commission for any new housing.
“We would make sure development is not being developed in wetlands, and if a new septic system is proposed, that it’s in an area that does not disturb the wetlands,” Chuck Horner, the commission’s director of regulatory programs, said.
So far, none of the 13 farms has started the permitting process.
Doyle, of the state blueberry council, owns D.G. Doyle Farms, a 15-acre commercial blueberry farm in New Lisbon, Burlington County. His small farm, which does not house temporary workers, was not cited for housing or environmental violations.
Doyle said a group of about 18 growers has hired an attorney to lobby agencies and lawmakers seeking less stringent fire-safety rules for seasonal farm camps.
“A fire suppression system is very, very expensive,” Doyle said. “All growers that I know have fire extinguishers, fire alarms, sounding devices, as most of us do in our homes.”
He said he understood why hotels and year-round facilities need sprinklers. But blueberry harvesting lasts only about six weeks, he said.
In June, a group of state legislators introduced a package of bills that would loosen fire codes for agricultural housing. The bills would bar townships from enforcing any laws stricter than the eventual state code.
The Assembly passed the bills out of committee. The Senate versions are being considered in committee, and a vote could take place in late fall.
If the farm group is unable to exempt housing sheds from having fire-suppression systems, Doyle said, farmers will just have to comply.