HAMMONTON, NJ – Workers in the largest blueberry farm in the northeast move through the fields in small groups. The fingers dance at the speed of musicians as they pick bushes that are full of fruit.
The more they collect, the more they are paid in a season that only lasts about seven weeks.
Except when it rains, they work seven days a week. There is no time for illness.
But everywhere there are memories of the corona virus and its ability to sweep quickly through crowded farm camps.
This is the reason why workers who live and work close to each other wear headscarves over their faces in the hot sun and work separated by plexiglass in the fruit packaging plant.
“It feels a little uncomfortable,” said Angel Rodriguez, who works at the farm’s packaging facility. “You don’t know if someone is contagious.”
34-year-old Rodriguez left Puerto Rico in March to work his way up the east coast. He stopped in Florida for two months before arriving in Atlantic County, the center of the thriving blueberry industry in New Jersey, in late May.
He is one of an estimated 22,000 seasonal workers who grow and harvest grain in New Jersey. The nickname is Garden State for its robust agriculture.
Like Mr. Rodriguez, many workers follow mature ripening on the east coast, starting in Florida, where migrants’ neighborhoods have been infected by the virus, and are moving north to Maine.
To make life even more dangerous this year, they are considered an indispensable workforce – exempt from home orders and a 14-day quarantine rule in New Jersey for people from countries where the virus is spreading rapidly. With every influx of new workers there is a risk of a new outbreak.
3,900 farm workers had been tested in New Jersey by Thursday, and 193 were positive for the virus, according to the state Department of Health. Of these, 14 migrant workers who could not remain isolated anywhere were quarantined in a state field hospital in the Atlantic City Convention Center.
“It’s a little dangerous,” said Felix Nieves, 56, who works as a supervisor at Atlantic Blueberry. The 1,300 hectare farm is considered the largest blueberry producer in the northeast.
“But agriculture never stops. The fruits will not wait for this to pass. “
The first round of testing at Atlantic Blueberry was conducted earlier in the season before most workers arrived. Three of the first 56 people tested were positive for the virus.
The health risks of the virus have made testing on the sprawling farm a priority, according to one owner, Paul Galletta.
“We’ll test as often as they can come,” Galletta said of the health workers wearing white overalls, masks, face shields, and gloves as they collected nose swabs. You have returned three times.
A sick workforce during a short growing season could be financially disastrous.
“This crop is coming in, virus or no virus,” said Denny Doyle, president of the New Jersey Blueberry Industry Advisory Council.
Atlantic Blueberry bought 3,000 headscarves and gave each worker two – one to wear, one to wash – and hung fire-retardant fabrics between the beds in the dormitories where hundreds of workers live during the season. Mr. Doyle said the farm also bought several additional buses to make room for the shuttles that go to and from the fields.
Agriculture is New Jersey’s third largest industry. The state is one of the nation’s leading producers of blueberries, cranberries, peaches and eggplants.
In May, state health officials ordered four state-owned health centers to begin testing and issued safety guidelines that included a number of ambitious – some say impractical – suggestions for farm owners. Among other things, farmers should avoid bunk beds, need masks and create separate accommodations for everyone who tested positive for the virus.
There are no penalties for non-compliance.
The infection rate of 5 percent among agricultural workers in New Jersey may even be higher. Day laborers who do not live on farms are unlikely to be among those tested by health centers. Workers who are tested in private medical practices are not included in the list.
The test program is also voluntary. According to Dr. Lori Talbot, who treats migrant farm workers and looked at the list of non-compliant farms sent to state health and labor departments, has excluded 57 medical team operations from conducting on-site tests.
Dr. Talbot, who runs a clinic in Bridgeton, New Jersey, said 18 percent of the 200 farm workers she tested in May were positive for the corona virus. Many were asymptomatic, but two patients died of Covid-19.
“This is just a whole new level of pain for farm workers,” said Dr. Talbot. “You are now arriving and coming from places with high infection rates.”
State health commissioner Judith M. Persichilli has cited the prevalence of cases among farm workers as one of the possible reasons why the positive rate is now higher in South Jersey than in other parts of the state.
Linda Flake, managing director of the Southern Jersey Family Medical Center, one of the four health centers that coordinate tests, said that the perception that workers could carry the virus creates fear that is, in some ways, worse than the risk of the disease itself .
“The fingers are pointed at the farm workers,” she said. “I’m more worried that they will be stigmatized.”
According to a spokeswoman for Madison County, Samantha Field, one in four workers in a large agricultural greenhouse in Oneida, New York, Green Empire Farms, was infected with the virus in May. There was a backlash from the community, which took place on social media and in panicked phone calls.
“There was a lot of outrage in the community,” said Ms. Field. “Many people accused her.”
However, the risk of spreading is greatest in the cramped camps themselves. Out of 100 workers who were tested on a watermelon farm in Florida, the Florida governor found that 90 had the virus.
In New Jersey, at Cassaday Farms in Gloucester County, 70 out of 90 workers contracted the virus, according to owner George Cassaday.
Mr. Cassaday asked the Southern Jersey Family Medical Center to conduct tests after an older worker fell ill and was hospitalized for about a week. None of the other workers showed severe symptoms, said Mr. Cassaday, who was also infected with the virus; It was tested after it was unable to smell its favorite flowers, hyacinths.
Most of his employees arrive from Mexico on an H-2A work visa each spring and stay for harvesting early and late season crops, including broccoli, corn, strawberries, and pumpkin.
He says his business is as dependent on their health as they are on their trust.
“I eat with the men. I’m going to visit them in Mexico, ”said Cassaday. “We are a big family.”
According to Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a national advocacy group focused on labor standards and safety, it is believed that at least half of the country’s agricultural workers are undocumented.
“What we hear everywhere is that people are too afraid of being fired or deported to ask for improvements in health and safety practices,” said Goldstein.
Migrant agricultural workers are not among the categories of foreign workers that President Trump barred entry in June. However, long before the corona virus, finding enough people on farms in the United States to work in the fields was a problem.
The number of H-2A visas applied for and approved has increased fivefold since 2005 and rose to 258,000 last year – “one of the clearest indicators of the lack of agricultural workers,” according to a report by the United States Department of Agriculture Agriculture.
Labor shortages on blueberry farms in New Jersey have led to increased use of fruit harvesting equipment in recent years, which can be damaged and then frozen and not sold fresh.
The U.S. guidelines on the safety of the country’s estimated 2.4 million agricultural workers are not mandatory. A New Jersey state senator, M. Teresa Ruiz, has submitted a bill to make the state’s recommendations binding.
“Each state is separate,” said Amy Liebman, director of environmental and occupational safety at the Migrant Clinicians Network, a nonprofit organization for health organizations. “In some cases, every farm is on its own.”
Sara A. Quandt, a professor and medical anthropologist who teaches epidemiology and prevention at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, has started a survey on farm workers’ understanding of the virus and social distance.
She said she was frustrated with the “guilt of the victims” and suggestions that infection rates in migrant communities are somehow related to poor hygiene.
“There is inherent racism,” said Professor Quandt, “that your life may not be worth quite as much, and it may be your own damned fault.”