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For Pickers, Blueberries Mean Easier Labor But More Upheaval

Morgan McCloy/NPR

Morgan McCloy/NPR

Morgan McCloy/NPR

Morgan McCloy/NPR

Morgan McCloy/NPR

Morgan McCloy/NPR

Morgan McCloy/NPR

For Pickers, Blueberries Mean Easier Labor But More Upheaval

The season for blueberries used to be short. You'd find fresh berries in the store just during a couple of months in the middle of summer.

Now, though, it's always blueberry season somewhere. Blueberry production is booming. The berries are grown in Florida, North Carolina, New Jersey, Michigan and the Pacific Northwest — not to mention the southern hemisphere.

But in any one location, the season is still short. And this means that workers follow the blueberry harvest, never staying in one place for long.

Blueberry farming has a long tradition in Bladen County, N.C., in the southeastern corner of the state. Chris Barnhill, the owner of Blueberry Hill Farms, showed me around his farm. He's the fourth Barnhill to grow blueberries here.

A couple of hundred workers move slowly down the rows of bushes. Their fingers move quickly, stripping the bushes clean. "They pick by the pound, in buckets," Barnhill explains. He gestures toward one of the workesr. "She already has got six buckets."

When the buckets are full, workers carry them to a collection station to be weighed. They get a little paper slip that they can turn in once a week for cash.

"So far this year, our average, for everybody, has been $16 an hour," Barnhill says. "I've seen them make as high as $30 to $35 an hour picking blueberries."

Some farm workers consider harvesting blueberries their favorite job. The money is good and the work is relatively easy — you don't have to climb into trees on ladders, as you do with apples, and you don't have to bend over all day, as you do picking strawberries.

In the packing house, berries are run down a conveyer belt, where workers pick out the unripe or smashed ones. The rest are packaged in boxes, ready to be shipped.

Behind the packing house, I notice a line of rusting, ancient school buses. Barnhill explains that 20 or 30 years ago, his father sent those buses out to surrounding towns to pick up workers. They were mostly African-American.

Back then, North Carolina grew only about a third as many blueberries as today. Barnhill says that as the harvest grew, the supply of local labor didn't keep up.

These days, almost all of the workers drive here from the south, from blueberry fields in Florida or Georgia. Many came, originally, from Mexico. While they're here, most of them live right on the farm, in simple houses with sheet metal walls. They're a little bigger and more permanent-looking than trailers.

Benito Santiago has been picking blueberries for 10 years now. He agrees: The money is good, picking blueberries. It's twice what he earns at other jobs. But the blueberry season is short, and the work keeps him and his family on the move.

He and his wife, Gloria Castro, and their five children must move with the harvest season, never staying more than about six weeks in each place.

Their normal migration route goes from Florida to North Carolina, and then to Michigan. He knows other workers who move more often, fitting in stops in Georgia or New Jersey as well. "On Saturday, a lot of people are leaving for New Jersey, because the season has already started there," he tells me.

The moves are especially tough for children, who are forced to change schools, he says. "When they get to a new school, they have new teachers, new classmates and even new subjects, because not all schools are studying the same thing," he says. "Sometimes they fall behind."

For many farm workers, moving is also frightening because they don't have drivers licenses. In most states, they can't get a license if they're not in the country legally.

"They can run into a checkpoint, or they're driving too fast and the police pull them over, and because they don't have a license, they get a ticket," Santiago says.

Fewer and fewer workers are ready to put up with this. Across the country, many have abandoned the migratory life. According to data collected by the Department of Labor, three-quarters of all farm workers are now settled in one place. Twenty years ago, fewer than half of them were.

And Benito Santiago's family is ready to join that trend. "With the help of all my children working, we managed to buy a house here," he tells me. It's a simple house near Ivanhoe, N.C.

Benito Santiago probably won't earn as much, staying here year-round. He's not sure exactly what work he'll be able to find in the off-season. He'll look for a job pruning blueberry bushes.

Next year, for the first time in a decade, he and his wife and their younger children will be able to buy some things that don't fit inside their car. They can put some pictures on the walls. Their son Rafael may have the same teacher all year long.

But his older sons, who are single and in their 20s, still are planning to follow the blueberry harvest. For them, this work is too attractive to abandon.

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