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Blueberry road goes from Haiti to South Jersey

BELLE GLADE, Fla. - Anything can go wrong in a blueberry harvest. The season is short - six to eight weeks in midsummer - and a freak July hailstorm can ruin a crop in 15 minutes.

Haitian farmworker Wilbert Janvier with a full container of blueberries last summer at Anthony "Butch" DiMeo's 400-acre farm near Hammonton, N.J.
Haitian farmworker Wilbert Janvier with a full container of blueberries last summer at Anthony "Butch" DiMeo's 400-acre farm near Hammonton, N.J.Read more

BELLE GLADE, Fla. - Anything can go wrong in a blueberry harvest.

The season is short - six to eight weeks in midsummer - and a freak July hailstorm can ruin a crop in 15 minutes.

The stakes are high - blueberries are New Jersey's biggest crop, worth $80.8 million, more than double corn and tomatoes.

It's a staffing nightmare. To pick New Jersey's 7,500 acres of blueberries, thousands of workers are needed for six intense weeks. Then it's over.

This is the story of one set of farmworkers - Haitian immigrants who live in poverty in South Florida - and one New Jersey blueberry farmer, and how their lives came to intersect, reflecting historic patterns and ebbs and flows in the economy.

The paths taken by the 500 workers who toil at Anthony "Butch" DiMeo's 400-acre farm near Hammonton involve factors as complex as political oppression and drought in Haiti, expanding blueberry farming in Georgia, increased sugar production in Florida, an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, laid-off bellhops in Palm Beach, and the ever-shifting situation with undocumented farmworkers and recent arrivals from abroad.

Or as simple as DiMeo giving a lift to a man walking down the highway near his farm.

Every immigrant group has its history: why it came to the United States, how it thrived, obstacles it overcame. The Haitian pickers - soon to arrive at DiMeo's Columbia Fruit Farms - are no different.

Every business also has its story. In DiMeo's case, it is the story of a family farm founded in 1938 that once produced nine crops, until DiMeo and his cousin decided to bet the farm on blueberries.

At DiMeo's farm, the Haitians live in "camps" - bunkhouses on the edge of the fields. They worship in a canvas-covered tent and play soccer on sandy lots.

They arrive by chartered bus from Belle Glade, one of the poorest communities in the United States.

In Belle Glade, on the southeast corner of Lake Okeechobee, a third of the population lives below the poverty level. One in three families earns less than $15,000 a year, mostly from farm work.

Less than 40 miles away, in the wealthy enclaves of West Palm Beach, unemployment runs about 6 percent. In slow periods, Belle Glade's unemployment reaches 30 percent, said Kelly Smallridge, director of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County.

"This is one big labor camp," said Albert Dowdell, Belle Glade's former chief of police, "and it's been difficult moving away from that."

Thrift shops and dollar stores stand in for clothing shops on the main streets in town, interrupting boarded-up facades.

What appears to be a restaurant, the Lighthouse Cafe, is actually a church mission serving two free meals a day.

Blocks away, idle men play endless games of dominoes outside their roominghouses. The two-story concrete structures resemble shoddy motels, painted in fading pinks and mud browns with balconies running along boarded windows. The boards merely mean the glass is broken; the rooms behind them are occupied.

One 32-unit building had two toilets for men, two for women. "It's almost not livable," said Lois Monroe, director of the Belle Glade office of the Farmworker Coordinating Council of Palm Beach County.

The first wave of Haitians came to this country and settled in the farm community of Belle Glade in the 1980s, fleeing political unrest, said Gregory Schell, managing attorney of Florida Legal Services' Migrant Farmworker Justice Project.

Drought, other natural disasters, and dire poverty drew more, with even meager U.S. farmworker earnings providing enough to send home. More important, Haitian children could attend public school free, unlike in Haiti. Over time, most obtained permanent resident or citizenship status.

The work was grueling but steady, with the growth cycles of each crop - corn, beans, squash, lettuce, and peppers - providing work in its own time, until the season ended in late spring. When farm work ends in Belle Glade, its people follow the harvests north.

In time, sugar profits led Belle Glade farmers to convert fields to cane, and later to mechanize the harvest, cutting labor dramatically. Competition for the remaining work is fierce.

Increasingly, Schell said, farmers use foreign workers, hired through the H2-A program. They cost more, but reliability is assured, as the farmer controls the visa. Complainers aren't invited back.

Also, when the economy expanded, the children of the earliest Haitian immigrants left for jobs in tourism or construction. Laid off in the recession, they compete with their parents for farm work, said paralegal Sauveur Pierre.

Pierre has perspective. As a younger man, he picked Jersey blueberries as part of Haitian crews. Now he works at Florida Rural Legal Services Inc. to help Haitian farm workers in Belle Glade.

The tough situation explains why many Haitian blueberry workers refused to be mentioned by name.

"The reason people like to go is because it is an easy job to do" compared to most other forms of farm work, Pierre said.

Workers worry that any hint they might be complaining would keep them from being selected by the local labor contractors who assemble crews.

Meanwhile, in Hammonton, Butch DiMeo had his own problems.

In the 1980s, Haitians and other migrant crews were in the minority, with DiMeo and other farmers hiring African American, Puerto Rican, and Asian day laborers from Philadelphia and Camden, said James Mooney, a longtime U.S. Labor Department investigator who has been monitoring conditions in New Jersey's blueberry field for 40 years.

DiMeo said he paid his day laborers in cash until government officials ordered him to pay by check. "When we had to pay everybody by check, I lost every one of them."

By 2000, Mooney said, blueberry farmers came to rely on migrant crews recruited by "labor contractors," usually from the same ethnic group.

In DiMeo's case, the labor contractor was Sorel Rinvil of Belle Glade, the Haitian man DiMeo picked up on the road some 18 years ago purely by coincidence. "I picked him up and turned him into a crew leader," DiMeo said.

Rinvil promised crews and DiMeo accommodated by building camps on his farm for the Haitians Rinvil brought by bus from Belle Glade.

But there were problems. The U.S. Labor Department slammed DiMeo and Rinvil with fines: Poor conditions on the farm camps, overcrowding, insufficient bathroom and kitchen facilities. Investigators hammered him and Rinvil as co-employers, citing them for the unsafe conditions of the buses Rinvil used to bring the Haitians from Belle Glade.

"The fines were killing me," DiMeo said. Just as bad, bus problems would delay the workers' arrival. Rinvil "could never get the people here on time."

Time is money in the short blueberry season.

On the farms, the same bush may be picked five times as berries ripen, with the last picking done by machine for pie fillings or other foods that "don't have to look good, they just have to taste good," Mooney said.

But the money is in the earlier pickings, and those have to be done by hand, on time. If there aren't enough workers, then the farmer has to harvest by machine, cutting margins.

Anything can intervene.

Lately, Georgia has turned to blueberries, attracting Florida's workers with jobs closer to home.

Unpredictable events also occur. In 2010, for example, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico drew Florida agricultural workers who could earn more cleaning up the muck.

"I can break my chops picking blueberries for $3 a flat," Mooney said, quoting workers, "or I can earn $12.50 an hour in the Gulf of Mexico."

As a result, blueberry farmers are again beginning to seek day workers. There has also been an influx of undocumented workers from Central America, Mooney said.

But not Butch DiMeo. "I don't have to," he said. "I have my own gang."

In 2010, tired of all the fines, he improved his camps. "All the buildings, I keep them really nice," he said. More significantly, he chartered safe buses to drive the Haitians from Belle Glade - it can happen on 24 hours' notice.

The bus costs more, but the timing is on the money.

DiMeo made so many improvements the U.S. Labor Department used him as a positive example.

He said rival farmers sometimes recruited workers right off the fields. But he's not worried.

"My people won't do that," DiMeo said. "They aren't going nowhere. I treat them really good. They are like family."

Delories Butts, 63, has been picking berries at DiMeo's farm for years. "I was raised on farm work," she said. "You work at your own pace."

Her pace, she said, is about 200 flats of blueberries a week over six days, for about $800. Each flat holds a dozen pints.

Butts says conditions have improved - and that some of the problems weren't all DiMeo's fault. He provides beds for the people he expects on buses, she said, but other workers arrive on their own, sleeping on bunk floors and in cars. "Then they fine him for being overcrowded," she said.

This summer, Mooney said, investigators will be particularly monitoring whether workers are earning New Jersey's new minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, up from $7.25.

In Belle Glade, Butts, who is African American but who travels with the Haitians because her fiance is Haitian, said she loves her time in New Jersey.

"It's a peaceful job," she said. She described how she runs the branches between her thumb and fingers, carefully stripping the berries away.

"You roll them off. You have to be very gentle."