Will travel restrictions leave Vermont farms hanging?

Published: Apr. 21, 2020 at 4:01 PM EDT
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Vermont farms rely on about 500 legal migrants who work on fruit, vegetable and poultry farms. But a new tweet by President Trump is calling into question whether they'll be allowed in.

The president says he will sign an executive order to fight coronavirus, which he calls the "invisible enemy," and to protect the jobs of American citizens. It's unclear how the order will be carried out or how long the suspension could last.

Our Ike Bendavid visited an Addison County farm to learn how international travel restrictions could hurt the harvest.

The farm store might be closed but work on the farm doesn't stop. But now with coronavirus, concerns loom about whether all the work on the farm will get done in time.

With spring here, it's a clear indication that work never stops on the farm, but these farmhands are in their favorite season.

"I love planting," Michael Hughes said.

"I think planting season is the best season," Edgar Hines said.

Hughes and Hines are both Jamaican citizens working on the Champlain Orchards farms. They are here legally working through the federal H-2A program that allows farmers to hire temporary workers.

They are two of 13 men who arrived on this Addison County farm before travel restrictions went into place.

"When I was just getting here I didn't know it was going to be this bad," Hines said.

Champlain Orchards usually relies on five times as many migrant workers over the summer season to maintain and pick fruit on their 500 acres.

"For the month of March and this first part of April there was no communication back and forth, no new arrivals," said Bill Suhr of Champlain Orchards.

And he is not alone.

"On the farms in the state of Vermont, legal migrant workers are extremely important," said Alyson Eastman, Vermont's deputy secretary of agriculture.

Eastman says statewide, roughly 35-40 farms use the federal program year-round bringing in about 500 employees from Jamaica and Mexico to Vermont.

"These workers come here to work and they have been filling a job that we have not been able to fill with local workers," Eastman said.

And as uncertainty continues over the coronavirus, it's unclear whether more of the seasonal workers will get to the Green Mountains.

"There is a concern, currently, for many farms," Eastman said.

That's something the workers here are worried about in the future-- fields full of fruit and not enough workers.

"That would be a big problem," Hines said. "That would be like a dead harvest season."

If the rest of the expected migrant workers don't make it to Vermont, the state says it's still too early to tell if Americans who have lost their jobs will be interested in filling these farm jobs.

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