Fall is just around the corner in Vermont. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped folks from visiting their favorite farm stands and orchards to go apple picking and finding the perfect pumpkin to carve. Local food is on everyone’s mind as bountiful harvests fill the shelves of local co-ops. And it wouldn’t be possible without the essential workers who grow our food—some native Vermonters and others traveling from worlds away to help our food system flourish. As part of Food Connects’ series highlighting how our food system connects us, especially in unseen ways, we sat down with Mr. Lionel Henry, Scott Farm Orchard crew leader, to learn more about his experience living and working in Vermont as part of the H-2A Temporary Visa Program during this global pandemic.
Mr. Henry, as he goes by, is from Thompson Town, Clarendon in Jamaica. Although Jamaica is his home, Mr. Henry has spent each summer since 1979 in the U.S. as part of the H-2A Visa Program. He’s cut sugar cane in Florida, grown tobacco in Connecticut, and harvested apples first at Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, NH, and now with Scott Farm Orchard in Dummerston, VT, where he’s been since 2001. Out of respect for Mr. Henry's rich cultural heritage in Jamaica, where Patois is the mother tongue, we have left his words intact as much as possible, even though we are aware that his style of speaking may seem unusual for readers who don't have much experience with Jamaican Patois.
Farmworkers are essential to our local food systems, and H-2A Visa workers are heavily relied upon to help local farms, like Scott Farm Orchard, successfully operate from year to year. Many of the H-2A Visa workers have been coming to the same farms for many years and their historical knowledge of the farms is invaluable—they know the farm and the apples like the back of their hands. “Our boss need us to help,” says Mr. Henry. “So we have a lot of different varieties (of apples), lots of different varieties, and whenever time we down here and like your boss would like this variety here now to pick, he stay down here and send you up there, you have to know exactly where it is, the perfect row that you are going and get it.”
And their hard work doesn’t go unnoticed. At the end of the day, Mr. Henry feels like his work is valued and appreciated by the community—instilling a sense of pride and loyalty. “I really observe that a lot of these people care for us… and we also care for dem and love dem too and try to do great work (at the farm). Lots of people came here at the farm stand to buy, they always appreciate what we do, the good work, and lots of dem tell we ‘Thanks!’"
Mr. Henry is the leader of the crew and takes pride in the work he does each day. “I try to work very honestly, and work with dem (the crew) honestly, work with the boss honestly, yea, and try to doing a good job… they have a lots of respect for me, yea, because me have a lots of respect for dem."
So, how has COVID-19 impacted their work and travel? And what does it look like back home?
Concerns for his family in Jamaica are still strong. Since he came to Vermont in early July, the number of cases in Jamaica has doubled. Mr. Henry also noted that, like many in the U.S, people in Jamaica are losing work. Back home he does farming—planting yams, bananas, and other crops so his family can bring them to the market. The pandemic, however, has slowed the process of selling their food. They’ve had to adapt to new ways of delivering food and must go less frequently. But, as Mr. Henry says, “people still have to eat!”
And eat they must. Despite the challenges surrounding COVD-19, Mr. Henry still made the journey to Vermont this year. The H-2A Visa Program provides a vital income source for those who participate in it. Because of the money Mr. Henry earned through the program his daughter was able to go to university in Kingston, Jamaica. “So, you know, being as we have our family to take care of and we need some help, so we come and risk, try to risk ourself and try to, you know, do the best we can to keep social distance and everyting and safe.” And they come back each year to not only build themselves up back home but also with a sense of dedication to the crops and farm.
The high risk and the challenges surrounding COVID-19 has changed the experience this year. The journey from Jamaica to Vermont was different. Normally he would fly to Florida and take a bus up but this year they took the plane all the way to Manchester for safety reasons. Working day to day, they have to think about their safety and how to protect themselves. Like many of us, they must now social distance while working and frequently use hand-sanitizer—an added stressor to the already demanding nature of their work. And still, they came. "We come and risk...we have is this crop here and our boss need us to help." Farmers are able to turn to and rely on the H-2A workers in meaningful ways and that value and vulnerability creates a long lasting connection between two different cultures.
But it’s a risk Mr. Henry is willing to take. The unemployment rate in Jamaica is projected to reach 12% due to ramifications from COVID-19. Because there are no other options, some may turn to crime. So, does he recommend the program to the younger generations? Enthusiastically, yes. "We all encourage younger people if they can come in the H2 program and fi do this work because you know some of dem down there don't have a job and if they come here they get something to do...I mean you just work and make yourself be comfortable and you contact your people dem, back home, your family back home and make dem know that you alright and they alright. You just try to be comfortable in yourself."
The work he and other H-2A Visa workers do is not easy and requires sacrifices including time away from family and friends. Mr. Henry is grateful for the opportunity it provides, despite these challenges, and is motivated by the care the community shows for him. For now, we celebrate this interdependence between our local farms, much of the local food many us eat, and the Jamacains working hard to support us. "Lots of thanks, lots of thanks, lots of thanks, lots of thanks! Because if never this way (having H2A work), things were going to be worse...you have to put something to use...(so you) make yourself very comfortable with your family."