Poverty Leads Migrants To Choose Hard Labor

November 25, 1990|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff writer

Each fall, with the rows of trees in the nearby orchard barren, the small white house on Hughes Shop Road outside Westminster empties.

From May until November, the house, trimmed in bright red, is home to about 20 workers who travel from Puerto Rico to work at Allan Baugher's orchard.

By now, the workers are back in Puerto Rico, many of them drawing unemployment benefits and catching up with friends and family. Next spring, many will return to work for another season.

Juan Ramos, 32, traveled that route for 14 years to pick fruit and vegetables at Baugher's. Three years ago, he settled here to work full-time.

He lives with his wife and two children in a house off Wakefield Valley Road, near another orchard owned by Baugher. He followed his father and uncle to the job because work was scarce in the small country town in which he was raised.

Baugher, who took over the orchard operation from his father in the 1950s, said employing migrant workers is "the only way" to stay in business.

Many people who live in this area won't take seasonal work, he said.

Thomas G. Ford, a county cooperative extension agent, said, "It's hard to get employees for every type of agriculture operation."

Even if farmers paid more per hour than fast-food restaurants, many workers would choose flipping burgers "because people would rather work in the air-conditioning," he said.

Picking fruit and vegetables is "hard labor," Ford said.

Baugher's, the largest orchard in the county and one of the largest in the state, is one of the few operations in Carroll that employs traditional migrant workers, Ford said. Other fruit and vegetable farmers hire seasonal workers through a broker, he said.

Workers at Baugher's earn from $3.80 an hour, minimum wage, up to $6 an hour for a 45-hour week, Baugher said. He hires males age 16 to 55, mostly from Puerto Rico, he said.

About 4,200 migrant workers come to Maryland every year in the early spring, mainly to work on the Eastern Shore and in Washington County, said Leon Johnson, chairman of the Governor's Commission on Migratory and Seasonal Farm Labor.

Many begin their trek in Florida or Texas and work their way up the East Coast, he said. Their average stay in Maryland is four to five weeks. Most are single men, he said.

The commission, formed in 1959, has been working for the last 10 years to improve living conditions for workers, he said.

Farmers who employ migrant workers must comply with regulations from myriad state and federal agencies to ensure that living and working conditions are safe, Johnson said.

Harvesting fruit and vegetables "sometimes" is hard work, said Ramos, who speaks broken English. Workers are out in the fields from 7 a.m.

to 5 p.m., with an hour break for lunch.

Ramos' father and two brothers live in Baltimore, but he said he would like to move back to Puerto Rico eventually. His daughter, Zenaida, 5, will be in the first grade next year, and he said he would like her to attend school there because understanding English is a problem.

The couple, married seven years, lived in Patillas, a town of about 3,000. Ramos' wife, Nancy, said she would like to return because she misses her family.

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