Pandemic creates added challenges for migrant workers and the farms that employ them

Workers at Turkey Knob Growers harvest apples in fall 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Jaime Williams)

Editor’s note: This story was reported in conjunction with the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism

By Tristan Lorei, contributor

Migrant workers, who would spend this fall picking apples at Turkey Knob Growers’ orchard in Timberville, travelled roughly 50 hours by bus from Monterrey, Mexico, late this summer to get to northern Rockingham County. It’s a trip many have made for years. But in 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, everything seems to come with additional risks. 

For migrant workers like Adrian Galván Arrojo, the pay and job security outweighed his concerns about the virus. 

“In part, [I was worried], but I need this job because the orchard here pays better than where we could work in Mexico,” Arrojo said in Spanish. “It’s much better to work here.”

Arrojo, who works in Turkey Knob’s packaging facility, puts apples in the system and tags them according to their variety. He must wear a mask, gloves and long sleeves while on the job. This is his fifth season working at the Timberville orchard, and he said it has been completely different than past years because of new safety protocols the orchard has put in place — both on the job and the in the living quarters the migrant workers share while working in the Valley. 

“I see it as a good thing, the measures that they are taking to protect us, right?” Arrojo said, specifically referring to the safety precautions and procedures on the job and in the camp. “To me, it’s good what they are doing. Yes, a lot has changed, but I think it’s for our own good.”

Turkey Knob Growers began in April to prepare for the workers’ arrival, which in some cases meant a complete shift in operations in order to protect workers from being exposed to or spread COVID-19. 

“There’s no ifs, ands and buts with us,” said Jaime Williams, the company’s president. “We grow apples, [and] we gotta get those apples to market, so we’ve got to implement these procedures in order to get it harvested and packed. Therefore, we’re going to have to make sure we’ve instituted safe practices to social distance and do lots of those things.”

A worker at Turkey Knob Grower’s orchard places what he’s picked into the crate to go to the packaging facility. (Photo courtesy of Jaime Williams)

Employers take precautions

Turkey Knob Growers is known as a “grower, packer, shipper.” The company grows and harvests the apples, packages them for fresh markets and ships the apples to various distribution points across the Mid-Atlantic region. The harvest season starts in August and finishes in late October or early November. Workers in the packing facility, such as Arrojo, continue until the end of February.

Williams said social distancing among workers at the orchard isn’t a problem because there’s lots of open space. The company purchased masks for the workers. And it installed hand sanitizing stations in the fields to comply with requirements in order to work with certain retailers. As a result, the orchard already had put into place the requirements the Virginia Department of Health has pushed and he, personally, hasn’t dealt with Virginia Department of Health officials. Williams estimates Turkey Knob has spent tens of thousands of dollars purchasing Covid-related protections. 

“At the end of the day, you’re a business,” Williams said, “In order to stay in operation, you’ve got to make sure your employees are safe, happy and well.”

As the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism reports, Virginia has about 10,000 migrant farmers across 250 farms and orchards, according to the Virginia Employment Commission. Several state agencies have set standards for employers like Turkey Knob to try to keep workers safe. The Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Board, for instance, approved in July emergency safety guidelines in the wake of outbreaks in meat-packing facilities including some poultry packers in the Valley. 

However, the state has fewer standards for migrant farm workers’ living facilities, such as company-provided camps. The state has reported only a few COVID-19 outbreaks at migrant camps, but health department officials told the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism that state officials aren’t actively monitoring them.

Williams said the safety precautions are only one way the pandemic has forced the normal course of business to “be turned upside down.” 

Only the retail aspect of agriculture business will remain unchanged by COVID-19, such as selling the apples to grocery stores. Second-tier markets or institutional businesses — such as schools, restaurants and hotels — and the export business and farm stands have all suffered from COVID-19. 

Keeping workers in a bubble

Turkey Knob Growers also is limiting visitors to the orchard during this season. In the past, workers had family members visit or sometimes staff members of non-profits will come to help the workers. Not this year. 

Williams said company leaders have been talking to workers who traveled from Durango, Mexico, about these changes long before they arrived in August. 

While some migrant workers will travel from farm to farm or across states throughout the season, Turkey Knob Growers has roughly 190 workers that come straight to them and then return to their hometowns. Of Turkey Knob’s workers, 150 harvest the apples and 40 package them. 

Many of them traveled to Rockingham County from Mexico this summer by bus. And before leaving, and upon arriving, workers had their temperatures checked. During the journey, they wore masks, face shields and gloves and washed their hands often. 

Some of the migrant workers, like Geovanni Miranda, opted to travel separately with their own vehicles in order to maintain social distance.

Miranda’s family was worried about the close quarters on the bus, so his grandmother arranged for him to have his own car to travel to the orchard. While he knew the risks of coming, it was never an option for him to stay home.

“Never. No, never. I always thought of coming,” Miranda said in Spanish. “It didn’t matter the situation in the United States because it’s a great opportunity that you can’t waste.”

Workers like Arrojo and Miranda have both been coming back for years. Arrojo is working his fifth season and Miranda is working his third. If they can’t return, they’ll recommend a relative to go instead, Williams said. 

The migrant workers come back every year to Turkey Knob Growers and work from three months to as long as six months. 

“You take care of them,” Williams said. ”You give them a nice work environment and you treat ’em right and for the most part they come back. We no longer have to recruit. They recruit for us.” 

Risks beyond the workday

The workers stay in camps outside the orchard and are transported in by Turkey Knob Growers. 

The camps are where Williams said he expects the most difficulty ensuring social distancing because of the close quarters and the inability to monitor what happens there. While the orchard can request that they don’t have visitors, the orchard isn’t allowed to prohibit it.

Apple picking commences as usual at the Timberville orchards even though virtually nothing else — including safety protocols — is normal about 2020. (Photo courtesy of Jaime Williams)

“The fortunate thing for us,” Williams said, “is that a lot of this stuff we had already implemented prior to this just because we have to go through food safety practices. So, really the only big thing to us is the social distancing and wearing the face masks.

Williams said the chief objective is ensuring workers understand how important it is to guard against the virus. 

While they check the workers’ temperatures daily before they come to work, the orchard hasn’t administered any COVID-19 tests. Williams says this is because it isn’t necessary to test without an outbreak. 

Arrojo said while the orchard is strict with safety precautions, he is glad that company officials have taken the measures to keep the workers safe. 

“It would be very sad to [go home] and not know that we have the virus and infect our families,” Arrojo said. “It would be serious. We have to follow the measures and take care of ourselves to be able to protect our families in Mexico.”

Valentin Velazquez, who unloads and stores the apples in the apple packing operation, said the safety measures in place are working and that he feels safe at the orchard. Velazquez lives with the men he works with during the day, as they share one of the seven housing units the orchard provides. 

“It’s already been more than a month and [we] are all good. No one has been sick or anything,” Velazquez said in an interview last month. “We are all working the same job ,and none of us have any contact with other people who don’t work in packaging. We don’t receive visitors to our house and we don’t visit other people either. Because of this, I feel very safe.”

Velazquez said he, too, was initially nervous to come to the United States to work this season. In Mexico, he only would leave his house once a month to buy groceries for that month and always wore a mask. He wasn’t tested before coming to the orchard but had been checking his temperature often both in Mexico and during the bus ride to the orchard.

“I was afraid,” Velazquez said. “But also, I have to work.”

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