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Migration habits Featured

9:40am EDT July 22, 2002

Mitch Lynd’s business wouldn’t survive without migrant labor.

“It would be impossible to function without them," says the co-owner of Lynd Fruit Farm in Pataskala, a facility that employs more than 100 migrant workers each year. “I need practically no workers until it’s time to pick apples. Then, when it’s time to pick, the apples don’t wait on anybody.”

In fact, there’s only a window of about 10 to 12 days during which all the apples must be picked.

Lynd says his family-owned business realized the importance of migrant labor early in its 80-year history, and he's able to keep workers coming back each year to pick apples, pumpkins, gourds and peaches because he offers good pay and good conditions. In addition, word of mouth among the workers keeps all his positions filled year after year.

“The single toughest thing has been to truly understand them and their needs, what they like and what they fear,” says Lynd, noting the majority of his migrant labor pool speaks Spanish, while he does not. “When you don’t understand them and they don’t understand you, there are all types of myths and misunderstandings that are fostered.”

There have been several occasions in which workers misunderstood what Lynd was saying, then were concerned for days about what was being discussed. Lynd says he had no idea there was a misunderstanding until a worker brought it to his attention.

Taking down the language barrier is so important to Lynd and his partners that they hired someone fluent in Spanish and English to interpret. That man, John Kammeyer, is now part owner of Lynd Fruit Farm, a company whose annual sales total about $1.5 million.

“A lot of our friends have tried to hire migrant workers. But because they can’t understand the culture and language, they have a difficult time,” Lynd says.

Lynd hires migrant workers rather than high school and college students to pick his fruit because, while students are normally only available during the summer and winter months, migrant workers are able to work longer hours during the months Lynd needs their help most. In addition, he says, migrant workers know the importance of long hours and hard work from working on several farms each year.

Tom Dutton, co-owner of Eastside Nursery in Columbus, set up his migrant labor camp five years ago with the help of a $2,500 state grant. His business, which boasts annual revenue of more than $12 million, employs 60 migrant workers each year.

Dutton says he might not be able to get by without full-time employees who speak both Spanish and English, since most of the migrant workers he hires don’t speak English.

“It is a bit of a problem at first,” he says of communicating with his seasonal work force. “But we’ve been here long enough that we’ve got one migrant worker who speaks pretty good English.”

Both Dutton and Lynd say migrant workers hear about the jobs they offer via word of mouth from other seasonal workers.

The Ohio Revised Code defines a labor camp as “one or more buildings or structures, trailers, tents or vehicles ... established, operated or used as temporary living quarters for two or more families or five or more persons intending to engage in or engaged in agriculture or related food processing ...”

Dutton and Lynd say meeting initial state housing requirements for migrant staff is challenging. According to the Ohio Department of Health’s Rules for Agricultural Migrant Camp Workers, these requirements include:

  • Meeting set criteria for water and sewer systems, electricity, plumbing, noise and pollution levels, and insurance.

  • Providing sleeping facilities for each occupant.

  • Having effective and sanitary cooking and eating areas.

  • Installing fire extinguishers in each building.

“The main problems come in when [business owners] try to convert a farm house to a migrant house,” says William Stamper, sanitarian for the Ohio Department of Health. “The farm house didn’t have to meet any codes, and they have to upgrade and put some money into it sometimes.”

Stamper and his crew inspect each of Ohio’s 143 migrant camps four to six times a year. If the camps aren't in compliance, the business is written up and told to fix the problem. Lynd insists it's not the legal requirements for using migrant workers that worry him most, however.

“If you don’t keep them happy, they’re on to somewhere they will be happy really fast,” he says. “Employees quit and go somewhere else at the drop of a hat.”

Darrel Richter (DRichter01@aol.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN.