Demand high for orchard jobs

Ads draw big response for seasonal farm work

Marcello Hernandez-Ramirez prunes a peach tree in an orchard along 34 3/4 Road while working on a crew for Talbott Farms. Hernandez-Ramirez is working in the U.S. on an H-2A worker visa.

For years, Palisade peach grower John Cox barely got a response while advertising locally for temporary help to work his 30 acres.

In 2008, for example, three local people called inquiring about work. And, in the years before that, he probably received a single inquiry each year.

But all that changed last year when up to 35 local job seekers called in November in response to an ad.

“People are looking for work,” Cox said. “A temporary job is better than no job.”

Fruit growers in the Palisade area hire some workers to prune trees in the winter months, but most seasonal workers are needed in the late spring and summer months to thin trees and pick fruit. For some of Mesa County’s swaths of unemployed workers, jobs in the Grand Valley’s orchards now apparently seem appealing.

One of the area’s largest fruit growers, Talbott Farms, 3782 F 1/4 Road, received 400 to 500 walk-in requests for employment this year, co-owner Bruce Talbott said. The company hires about 120 people a year.

“We got guys that came in here and say, ‘I worked here 15 years ago. Do you have any work for me?’” he said. “They’re roofers, concrete guys, landscapers, all kinds of people who have been laid off from the trade industry.”

Grand Junction’s unemployment rate was 8.9 percent in December, which equates to more than 7,200 job seekers.

At first glance it might seem growers would be happy to have a wide variety of workers to pick from.

But here’s the rub. When local jobs were plentiful, it was impossible for large growers to find enough local help to harvest crops. So, growers started using the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program. The program allows workers from other countries to work in agricultural positions in the United States for a portion of the year in exchange for fair wages, housing and utilities.

That scenario has worked well for Talbott Farms for the past decade, and now those workers are “highly reliable,” Talbott said. Local job seekers are usually unaccustomed to the hard work that farm work entails, he said. And local workers are much more likely to quit midseason, or often, after only a day.

However, according to the rules of the H-2A program, growers must first hire local workers over those with visas. Growers may find themselves in a bind, though, if visa workers are denied the right to work on local farms and local workers quit midseason.

H-2A workers have incentives to be here, do good work, stay out of trouble and make money to support their families in their home countries, Talbott said. They also know the farm well and “know the difference between putting in time and being an efficient employee,” he said.

“My very best guys are in the H-2A program,” Talbott said. “They don’t want to commit to a vehicle. They know they’re safe here, and there’s a lot less stress than trying to run the border.”

Owner Theresa High of High Country Orchards, 3548 E 1/2 Road, said she has received a number of calls from local job seekers. However, the callers rarely follow through by filling out an application or having any skills in the farming arena.

“I had a couple of callers who have no idea of what farming is,” she said. “I just think most people don’t want to work hard. Even now they still don’t want these jobs. Believe it or not, farming is much more skilled than people think.”

Workers toil through the chill of spring pruning trees and pick fruit carrying heavy packs in orchards when the temperatures get into the 90s to 100s. Others stand for long hours packing fruit.

High said she has had issues with local workers showing up on time if at all, picking green peaches and, in general, often having bad attitudes.

Growers also get workers on the local work-release programs. Talbott said he was forced to hire one man with three felony convictions, all of a violent nature, to work on his farm. Talbott said the man never actually started work on the farm after getting into an accident.

Two of Cox’s local employees left suddenly last year, one to serve a prison term and the other to work in Alaska.

High said she is convinced the most qualified workers for the orchards and those with the most love of their work are those from the H-2A program.

“As much as I’d like these jobs to go to Americans, there aren’t a lot of Americans that want to do it,” she said.


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