Reaping dreams along with crops Migrants: The jobs are seasonal and the work is hard, but workers are able to support their families.

October 10, 1998|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The yield is sweet. But the job of getting the peach from tree to truck, the berry from bush to basket and the 30-pound pumpkin from vine to crate is hard labor.

In Maryland, the job of picking each variety of fruit in its season has fallen to migrant workers, who number 1,600 at the height of tomato season in August. Their number has dwindled to a few hundred now, busy with this month's apple and pumpkin crop.

"It's hard work, it's hot and it's seasonal," said Jo Ann Weber, co-owner of Weber's Cider Mill Farm near Carney in Baltimore County, where three or four Mexican migrants work each year.

But the hard, migratory work has built a nest egg for Lupe Rojo over the years.

"Down there, there are no jobs," Rojo, 30, said of his native El Salto, in the state of Hidalgo, Mexico.

His father raised chickens and farmed a few acres, but it was just enough to feed the family of nine. There was no irrigation, so a drought year meant no crop, Rojo said.

He left El Salto at 16 to find work mending fences for a cattle ranch and filling train cars with grain in Texas. He made his way to Pennsylvania, where he worked at a mushroom farm in the winter and picked tomatoes, peppers and pumpkins for a New Jersey farm in the summer. He got a job almost year-round at a Pennsylvania orchard, but it went out of business in 1989. The land was sold and rows of trees were leveled for development.

In November that year, out of a job and facing the end of the harvest season, Rojo and a buddy drove south into Carroll County and knocked on orchard owner Allan Baugher's door.

"At first, I told them we didn't need any help," Baugher said. "But after we were talking some and I saw what they were made of, I thought maybe I better attach onto something here."

Rojo has since become a crew leader. He is the first to arrive in February, when he starts trimming fruit trees, and the last to leave in December.

He has bought a house near Westminster with his girlfriend, and spends two months of the year in El Salto building a small house. His dream is to buy a farm in Texas, perhaps to raise cattle.

Over the past 10 years, more area farms have used migrants because they can't find anyone else willing to do the work, said Bryan Butler, an educator at the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in Carroll County.

High school students can just as easily get a job in an air-conditioned fast-food restaurant. Adults want year-round work. But Latin American migrants are willing to pick fruit because the conditions and pay are so much better than what they can find at home, he said.

"The kind of harvest we have, it takes hands," said Baugher, who employs about three dozen migrants from Mexico and Puerto Rico. "Without help like them, I don't think we'd be able to run an orchard the way we do."

These days, the migrant workers climb apple trees with red jTC canvas picking bags slung over their shoulders like gigantic beach totes. When full, a bag weighs about 30 pounds. Each worker fills his 175 to 200 times a day -- up to 6,000 pounds of apples by day's end.

Pumpkins, like watermelons earlier in the summer, make the trip from vine to bin pitched from one person to another, down a line of about six workers.

In a typical five-hour morning pumpkin harvest, 22,000 pounds of pumpkin will pass through each worker's hands.

The Baugher's workers sleep in a camp, a converted packinghouse in New Windsor. In the evenings, they cook dinner and sometimes play soccer on a nearby field, Rojo said. A satellite dish delivers a Spanish-language channel to the television.

"We like the job," Rojo said. "These guys, they have fun."

Pay ranges from $5.15 (minimum wage) to $8 an hour, with the potential for more with piecework this month.

Baugher withholds Social Security from their checks, but with typical annual pay of about $7,000, most won't have to pay income taxes. Rojo, as a crew leader, earns about $20,000 over 10 months, he said.

Weber employs three or four Mexican migrant workers a year, and the same ones return.

"At our place, it's almost like they are one of the family," Weber said. "It's important to the farmer to be able to have people you can count on to come and do the job every day."

Weber's has counted on Obiel Montes, 29, of Chihuahua, Mexico, for eight years now.

Montes leaves a wife and three children for seven months of the year to work for the Webers.

"I didn't make enough money in Mexico to support my family there," said Montes. He tried restaurant work in Colorado first.

"These people are good people. I like working for them," said Montes, who heard about the Weber farm from friends who were migrant workers.

But being away from his family is hard, he said. He hopes to apply for U.S. citizenship and bring his family here.

Rojo and his girlfriend, Linda Daumant, a manager at Baugher's Orchard and the niece of Allan Baugher, are building a life here and hope to get married. Rojo had wanted to wait, Daumant said, because he didn't want people to think he married her just to become a citizen. He wanted to qualify on his own, which takes at least seven years and a test of oral and written English, and U.S. government.

That part of the dream is about to come true. Late last month, Rojo drove to downtown Baltimore for his second attempt at the test. He passed.

This month, Lupe Rojo will raise his right hand, take an oath of citizenship and become a U.S. citizen.

Pub Date: 10/10/98

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