Trabajadores de temporada de Puerto Rico ( Please consider this Part 2 of Farming in Fairfield 1950 – 1980 ).
Farm labor has always been a challenge since the days when large Families were able to handle all of the necessary farm chores and duties. Vegetable Farming was particularly labor intensive and many immigrants found their first jobs in America on our New Jersey farms. The German, Irish, Polish, Jewish, Russian, and Italians were just a few of the ethnic groups that originally met agricultural labor shortages. Many non-family high school aged children worked on farms also, but this was very demanding work often better served with fulltime field hands.
By the time I arrived on the farm scene in the early sixties, our farm was employing seasonal migrants from Puerto Rico. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico encouraged migration off the island because of their changing economy and high unemployment there ( 30+ % ). Air travel was now more practical and New Jersey had a growing need for seasonal labor. The people of Puerto Rico were U.S. Citizens and could travel freely anywhere in the 50 States without fear of deportation. They were exempt from immigration quotas, refugee status, or temporary work Visas that Mexicans, Chinese, and others had to contend with. I’m speaking specifically about seasonal workers, not the great migration of those Puerto Rican Citizens seeking permanent family relocation in the more urban mainland communities. This was going on at the same time, but our workers returned to their Island homes and families every autumn.
We had a few bad hombres early on, but we maintained contact with particularly good workers. The best were usually farmers themselves who also worked previously on sugar, coffee, or tobacco plantations. These strong souls left their families for about 7- 8 months to earn their annual income. By late winter, last season’s savings would be depleted and the annual cycle would begin again.
The ‘Great Urban Migration’ from Puerto Rico had begun, but Seasonal Migrants returned home after the growing season.
Our Farm required only 3-4 workers, but getting 3-4 good workers was the trick. Most Puerto Rican Farm and Cannery hands were processed through a ‘Camp’ supervised by the State in a South Jersey clearinghouse. Tell them how many laborers you needed and they soon arrived. A few pennies per each work hour were remitted back to the State to cover administration. But you seldom knew what kind of worker you were going to get, and more than a few were unfamiliar with farming altogether. Most desperately needed to send earnings to their families back home where poverty was all too common.
Again, the trick was to get great workers year after year. Just like any business, you want the most reliable and productive Employees. How late they’ll work into the Fall is also an important consideration.
We had our best workers contact us via airmail in the late winter. We would mail them Airplane tickets to Newark and pick them up there. This was not ‘illegal’ but they bypassed the ‘Camp’ process and the hourly fees. A few pennies per hour meant a lot to Everyone back in those days. We put those extra pennies in their pockets, not ours.
There they were, in their ‘Sunday’ clothes with last years favorite hat and one small suitcase. (I’m not being critical. I loved and respected these guys. But they were really easy to spot no matter how busy it was at the airport terminal ).
It was now very early March and the greenhouses and ‘cold frames’ had to be readied for thousands of flats of ‘bedding’ plants. The worker’s house had to be spruced up too because it was used for Christmas supplies storage in the winter. One year we gave the ‘boys’ a few gallons of light green paint for the interior of their house. They painted everything except the window glass, light bulbs, and large picture of Jesus. Bed frames, sink, range, and gas stove all painted light green. Even the frame of Jesus’ picture. At the time, we thought this was pretty funny.
The living quarters were strictly monitored for compliance with State Laws. A tough ‘no nonsense’ Inspector audited the farm at least once a year. Violations brought them back for follow up inspections, but we never needed one. There was a lot of non-compliance statewide, but decent ‘above average’ quarters was another way to encourage good workers to return to us year after year. We even provided a hot water heater and flush toilets that were not State requirements.
( Talk about taking things for granted today – huh ? ).
Once, one of our workers witnessed his first snow fall. Pretty funny, he was dancing all around like Fred Astaire minus the umbrella. I’m sure they were similarly entertained by some of our social and cultural antics too.
Prior to their arrival we had to plant ‘seed flats’ in our glass greenhouse ( #1 ) that was equipped with a well, boiler, soil sterilizer box and heated benches. The soil sterilizer box was wired with heating coils to kill anything in the soil mix. This is very important because you had to be 100% sure all the tiny seedlings didn’t have weeds mixed in. Nothing worse that transplanting a weed, but our guys also had keen eyes for the occasional intruder.
Uncle Pat was the maestro of coordinating all the timing of the various stages involved. Few people understand how really challenging this can be. You need to hit the market at the right time, the right product mix, and healthy ‘hardened’ plants. You miss the window, and you miss a lot of the income.
One seed flat is transplanted into dozens of 24 or 36 count market flats. Every inch of all four greenhouses were filled with flower and vegetable plants. We also had about a dozen perennial plant varieties that were growing in the main fields. Pansies are biennials ( two year life span ). Ever wonder why they don’t come back a second year? ( Because their first year was in the growers field planted the previous summer ).
El gran accidente
A heavy snow made one of the greenhouses where Alciño and Modesto were transplanting airtight. They also increased the heat inside with a ‘salamander’ kerosene space heater. The carbon monoxide eventually knocked them unconscious, and Modesto’s head landed on the hot part of the heater. My Father found them and dragged them to fresh air. ( Another hour and they likely would have died ). Moe’s head was badly burned so we called the West Essex First Aid Squad. When the Ambulance arrived, they drove over an icy berm at the edge of the road and their gasoline tank was ripped right off ! No kidding, the gas tank was lying in the driveway. It took a while for Ambulance #2 to arrive, but all ended well for Moe. He returned home to heal and ultimately settled for a huge insurance settlement of $ 9,000. Yes, he returned to us the following season.
The Guys were very busy mixing soil, filling flats, and transplanting seedlings. They worked steadily and diligently, but their dexterity was not the best. I say this because in later years we employed a local woman that could out produce our men by about 30% ! Dexterity matters, and this woman ( Dot Thatcher ) was awesome to watch.
Uncle Pat was always improving his knowledge by attending evening classes offered by Essex and Bergen Counties, as well as visits from the Rutgers Extension Service Agents. These were great services and helped Farmers with the latest technology, techniques, and safe pesticide application. So few Farmers took advantage of these free services, even before the rapid decline of Essex County Commercial Farming and Horticulture.
The Guys worked hard all summer on harvesting vegetables and sometimes an acquaintance of ours, Earl ‘Army’ Armstrong from Pier Lane, would sit on a basket where they were working to chat with them. ( If I did this I would get yelled at for ‘slowing them down’, but there were different rules for adults back then ). With legs crossed, thick framed eyeglasses, bowler hat and cigar, ‘Army’ would talk about his adventures in Mexico. They called him the “Mexican Guy” because Puerto Ricans were not generally fond of Mexicans ( and vice versa ). But ‘Army’ was not aware of this apparently and revisited the subject often. We always appreciated the politeness and patience of our workers.
Friday evening was the weekly shopping adventure. The Guys showered up and put on their best duds and I was their chauffer. We went to ‘Two Guys’ in Totowa every week. Can you guess why Two Guys ? Because they had everything you could possibly want in one place: Groceries, clothing, liquor, and even guitar strings. Their shopping cart was stacked to it’s limit. Chicken, Rice, and lard was 70% of the cart’s contents. This was their favorite meal and you could always hear the sizzle from very far away.
They drank very little beer and only a few cans each on Saturday night. We would not tolerate any more than that. Yes, we had some rules.
We had many crops that grew well into November, and Uncle Pat offered them an incentive to stay until then. UP would pay their airfare home if they stayed to a specified date. But after September they had earned what they needed and were anxious to rejoin their Families. After 7-8 months, who could blame them, right ? ( Sometimes they even had children that they had not seen yet ).
But they knew UP would be unhappy, so they plotted their escape without his knowledge. One morning, someone would be seen at the street waiting for a taxi dressed in their best clothes, suitcase in hand, and new hat. UP was annoyed, but there’s nothing you can really do about it. All would be forgiven when the airmail letter arrived the next February.
Some Farmers employed ‘Russian Women’ for their cultivation and field work. Many lived in Singac, and they were always held in very high regard. In extremely hot weather they would still wear long heavy dresses, scarves and aprons. They claimed it was cooler to wear heavy clothes and even sweaters too, but this seemed ‘counter intuitive’ as we say today. I assume it was because of their dresses, but they never squatted or kneeled as our workers did. They always bent over at their waist to do all of their work. My back aches just thinking about doing this hour after hour, day after day.
Everyday the Schmitt’s picked up their Russian Women in Singac for greenhouse and field work.
We always had an open invitation to visit our Workers in their Puerto Rico country homes. So one year Uncle Pat and Aunt Marie added such a social call to a planned vacation to the island. Uncle Pat was not at all surprised by the surroundings, but Aunt Marie was shocked at the general living conditions there. I mean really shocked. I guess we all need a little ‘perspective’ now and then.
The minimum wage for migrant agricultural workers was always lower than the standard minimum wage. This changed in 1965-66 and the differential was eventually eliminated. Then, the minimum wage grew dramatically in the late 1960’s. This was a significant setback to New Jersey Farmers and California produce was now arriving via refrigerated rail cars into the New York Market.
Just like us, the Esposito’s, Francavilla’s , Lebeda’s, Wohkittel’s, and Burghardt’s hung in there as long as they could, but the outcome was already inevitable for more than a decade.
Dedicated to those Puerto Rican and Russian Women field workers who labored so hard for their Family’s well being.
I hope you liked reading about something a little different. Let’s see what off beat subject I can dream up next ! Any suggestions ?
Have a great holiday season Everyone, .................Paul Pollio December 19, 2018