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Changes in the Apple Harvest Work Force in West Virginia: Implications for the Community -- Monica Heppel, Joanne Spano, and Luis Torres



Monica L. Heppel, Joanne Spano, and Luis R. Torres


For fifty years, workers brought in from Caribbean islands as non-immigrant temporary foreign workers, or contract workers, comprised a significant portion of the apple harvest work force in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. This situation changed in 1992, the first year that no growers applied for contract workers. That year, and since, the bulk of the apple harvest work force in West Virginia has been Hispanic migrant workers. This shift has implications not only for the agricultural labor market but for the larger community, as the boundary separating agricultural workers from this community has become more permeable.

Abandoning the use of contract workers in West Virginia was unrelated to issues of labor supply. Instead, such decisions were the culmination of years of controversy over the use of contract workers in agriculture. The story of the use of contract workers in the West Virginia apple harvest has a number of unique twists and turns, but in many ways, reflects the attitudes, approaches, complexities and implications characteristic of agricultural labor markets in many areas of the United States.

This paper examines the history of apple production in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, tracing its unique history and its particular reaction to the common forces that have affected labor-intensive agriculture throughout the United States. It then looks at how community dynamics have changed in part as a result of the shift from contract workers who were legally obligated to return to their homes after the harvest to workers whose decision-making includes the possibility of settling out of the migrant stream and becoming year-round residents of the West Virginia Panhandle.


The Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, where over 90 percent of the state's commercial apple production occurs, encompasses the northern-most end of the Shenandoah Valley. The eastern tip begins 70 miles west of Washington, DC and an equal distance from Baltimore, MD.

While the rest of West Virginia has been reeling from a nation-wide recession and the down-turn in coal mining, the Panhandle has prospered. Its four counties are the fastest growing in the state, with unemployment hovering around 4% (WVBEP 1997) and rising land values, especially for those areas closest to Washington, DC. Two West Virginia counties, Jefferson and Berkeley, were recently included as part of the Washington Metropolitan Statistical area and fast are becoming bedroom communities for commuters to the Washington area. This boom in economic activity, however, is a mixed blessing for apple growers. Workers can compare seasonal farm labor to, for example, construction or manufacturing jobs paying substantially higher wages.


West Virginia currently accounts for less than 5 percent of total apple production in the United States, yet apples remain significant to the state and local economy. Production varies substantially from year to year, but is generally lower in the 1990s than it was throughout the 1970s and 80s. Average utilized production per year for the 1990s is 163 million pounds; in the 1980s it was 210, and in the 1970s, 229 million pounds (see Table 1).



Year Utilized Production Average Price Value

(million pounds) (cents/pound) ($1,000)
1970 220 4.9 10,780
1971 250 5.0 12,475
1972 215 5.6 12,105
1973 225 8.9 20,025
1974 210 9.4 19,740
1975 216 5.4 11,664
1976 200 8.3 16,600
1977 195 9.8 19,110
1978 295 8.6 25,370
1979 260 8.8 22,880
1980 245 7.8 19,176
1981 200 11.5 22,925
1982 240 9.4 22,597
1983 216 7.7 16,671
1984 225 10.6 23,778
1985 230 9.8 22,532
1986 230 10.6 24,410
1987 180 7.5 13,567
1988 215 9.5 20,330
1989 115 9.8 11,310
1990 150 9.6 14,420
1991 195 9.9 19,385
1992 220 8.3 18,180









Source: NASS, USDA. Noncitrus Fruits and Nuts, various issues.

Historically, West Virginia has produced primarily for the processing market, with this trend increasing over the last 15 years, so that by the 1990s, approximately 3/4 of the crop is used for processing. Generally, apples produced for the processing market can afford a slightly higher bruise rate than those picked for the fresh market. Over the years, however, processors are demanding better quality fruit, particularly during years of surplus production.

The History of Harvest Labor

From colonial times when apples were first grown in the Eastern Panhandle, until approximately 50 years following the end of the Civil War, the apple harvest work force in West Virginia was primarily family members, supplemented by local people wanting to earn extra money. High school students, housewives, the self-employed, retired, or people with flexible jobs pitched in part- or full-time as harvest or packing house workers. These were seasonal workers seeking seasonal jobs, with the rhythms of the community tuned to the apple growers' needs.

Those rhythms started shifting during the early part of this century as a result of changing external forces such as wars, economic cycles, government programs and regulations, industrialization, and urbanization. Labor shortages during and after World War I led farmers to look further afield for migratory workers. The economic crisis and resulting labor surpluses of the 1930s provided a brief respite, however available labor became a major concern during World War II. An apple grower, addressing the WV Horticultural Society, anticipated an acute labor shortage for 1943. He described the current situation and the myriad of factors which had led up to it: "...our labor troubles, in my judgment, have been 'on the make' for many years. Certainly in Piedmont Virginia an ample supply of good labor has been hard to get for a long time. Many factors enter into this. The democratizing and uplifting influence of compulsory education, the automobile, the increase of factories with their higher wage scales and pleasant working conditions, the general improvement in the manners and living standards of laboring people in general--all these and many more have brought about a new type of orchard worker. That gaunt figure with the tobacco-stained jaw and battered hat, asking for a job at the back door, is gone forever. In his stead has come the laborer of the New Day, whose children ride in buses to high school, eat lunches wrapped in cellophane, and know more about the calory (sic) intake than we do." (MG 1943).

At this point the federal government stepped in with a program that many growers saw as the answer to their prayers--a contract worker program. The importation of non-immigrant Caribbean workers through intergovernmental agreements--the British West Indies (BWI) Program--represented a major change in the approach to solving West Virginia apple growers' harvest needs. BWI workers supplemented the harvest work force throughout the years of labor shortages during World War II and the Korean War. When peace finally returned, however, West Virginia apple growers continued to use Caribbean, or "off-shore," workers for another 40 years, a practice which increasingly became the subject of controversy and ultimately litigation.

Throughout this period, the apple harvest work force consisted of local workers, migrant crews, and between 300 to 600 off-shore contract workers (approximately 1/3 of the overall work force). Most contract workers were housed at a large labor camp which had been built jointly during the early years of the program by growers employing contract workers.

Despite the availability of contract workers, for the past forty years speakers addressing the West Virginia Horticulture Society conventions or writers publishing columns in the "Mountaineer Grower," name the number one problem, year after year, to be finding skilled workers in sufficient quantities for the harvest. The H-2 program appeared to meet their needs the best by supplying young, strong, motivated males--usually experienced in agriculture--on order, and without the option of leaving the labor camp to change jobs mid-season. These workers were mandated to leave the area after the harvest, relieving the community of any burden they might pose during the off-season. This stability and predictability was brought up time and again as a primary advantage of using foreign non-immigrant workers. But for people who were adverse to dealing with government regulations, it only led them deeper into more levels of regulation.


Since the implementation of a contract worker program, West Virginia growers have complained bitterly about the ability of the Department of Labor's employment service's ability to provide qualified workers, as well as the Department's role in setting wage rates for agricultural workers in areas where contract workers were employed.

The federal judiciary became a factor in the H-2 and later H-2A program to a greater extent than it was in the Bracero program. The judiciary now found itself in the unenviable position, familiar to policy-makers, of attempting to strike a balance between protecting domestic workers while recognizing the legitimate economic interests of employers. In 1974, a New England apple grower set a precedent by receiving certification for H-2 workers through a court order. Previous attempts by agricultural employers to reverse DOL's denial of certification had been unsuccessful. After that first decision, the courts became an integral part of the certification process, sorely testing the judicial system. According to some, "certification cases often reach the courts only days before the season, under conditions that would strain the most able and dispassionate jurist. Even allowing for these conditions, however, a number of courts showed surprisingly little regard for the purpose of the H-2 program, DOL's labor market expertise, or even the normal limits of judicial review. Consequently, the federal judiciary has largely impaired and destabilized the certification process" (Semler 1983:22). Others contended that courts served as the sole source to reverse DOL's arbitrary and capricious denial of certification for H-2 workers--that without the courts' oversight of the Department of Labor, growers would be at risk of losing a substantial part of their crop for lack of an available and reliable work force. These two competing perspectives were at the core of litigation dating from the end of the 1970s.

In the first set of major cases, Frederick County Fruit Growers' Association, the Western District of Virginia had to rule on the issues twice in 1977 and in 1978. In Frederick I the issue of offering travel advances to domestic workers was raised; apple growers challenged the DOL determination that transportation advances were common practice in Virginia and thus must be provided by H-2 apple growers. The court held that the state was the relevant "area of employment" and that transportation advances were not the common practice among non-H-2 growers. It was further ruled that transportation advances generally provided by crewleaders did not bind the growers to pay advances.

In August of 1977, agricultural employers filed a second suit in the Western District, Frederick II, seeking to compel DOL to issue certification for the entire Northeast apple harvest. The temporary restraining order was issued on the same day the suit was filed, ordering DOL to admit the number of workers requested by the growers. When the appeal was entertained in November it was dismissed because the season had ended.

In 1978, apple harvest employers from New York, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia once again filed suit before the same judge, alleging that DOL improperly denied certification on the grounds that Puerto Rican workers were available when, in fact, they were not. This was because the Secretary of Labor had not yet waived Puerto Rican Law 87. The DOL was ordered to certify the need for H-2 workers and, on appeal, the 4th Circuit ruled that INS was to issue visas in the number requested minus the number of U.S. workers at the work site, and that available domestic workers should not be denied employment contrary to the applicable federal regulations. DOL assisted in the transportation and housing of workers to orchards throughout the Northeast. Growers claimed that most of these workers were not only inexperienced, but uninterested in performing the necessary tasks. In contrast, worker advocates claimed that growers discouraged the Puerto Rican workers, either by refusing to hire them or putting other obstacles in their way. When growers' refused to hire some Puerto Rican workers, and then dismissed others, lawsuits were filed in Puerto Rico against the growers. Defendants' refusal to answer these complaints resulted in default judgments against growers in West Virginia, Virginia, New York, and Maryland. After this experience, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico refused to waive the requirements of its local law in 1979 and no Puerto Rican workers were hired through the interstate system.

This episode, when viewed in hindsight, foreshadows future disagreements between the Department of Labor and growers regarding the availability of domestic workers. It also symbolizes the issue that concerned the Legal Services attorney when he entered the scene. A pattern was thus set throughout the 1970s which would play itself out in West Virginia through the 1992 harvest. The use of foreign workers and the concomitant issues which arose year after year drew into the arena opposing employer and employee advocates, administrative agencies, and the federal judiciary.

Within this morass of government regulation and Legal Service "activism," many West Virginia apple growers began to depend more and more on personnel from the Tri-County Labor Camp to deal with labor issues, particularly those related to the importation of foreign workers. In 1974, a representative from the British West Indies Central Labour Organisation (WICLO), the organization through which Jamaican workers were contracted, spoke to the WV Horticultural Society Convention on Jamaica's willingness to supply harvest workers. He outlined the conditions that had to be met for certification from the DOL and some requirements of WICLO. While growers saw their increasing affiliation with Tri-County when dealing with the importation of foreign workers as a logical business decision, farmworker advocates argued that instead it represented a strategy by which growers attempted to evade their legal responsibilities to their workers.

Issues of Liability

To better understand the role of the Tri-County Labor Camp and later the Tri-County Association, the development of attitudes among the major players in the West Virginia apple harvest, and the consequent issues which arose during the 1970s, it is useful to examine the larger issues which occupied the agricultural community at the time.

The debate over legal liability first surfaced directly in the West Virginia apple industry with regard to Tri-County Labor Camp as a question over the "joint employer" issue, that is, who was legally the employer of the foreign workers and thus liable in any legal action arising from the use of the H-2 program. This debate, in large part, set the tone and dynamics for subsequent events from the late 1970s through the 1980s.

Unlike previous years when growers had individually filed labor certification petitions requesting Jamaican workers, in 1975, Tri-County Labor Camp submitted clearance orders for individual West Virginia apple orchards signed by the manager of the camp. This was held unacceptable by the national office of the Department of Labor and the petitions would have been denied had Tri-County not agreed to sign as agent of the growers. With this change, the clearance orders were accepted and certification followed, with the individual growers identified legally as the employers.

As was the pattern with many issues, this one would reappear, as it did for the next two years as the manager of Tri-County labor camp would submit one clearance order, it would be denied, and individual orders would then be filed for each employer.

Despite being rebuffed twice by the Department of Labor in its attempt to serve as the sole employer, Tri-County in the spring of 1977 again filed, as the employer, a single agricultural clearance order for 513 workers. Once again the Regional Office of the Department of Labor informed the state agency that the associated orchardists must instead place individual orders into interstate clearance.

The dispute persisted until early August, 1977, when the camp's order for alien workers was about to be denied "because doubts persisted, in the National and Regional Offices, that the camp constituted the federal regulatory definition of an 'employer' as opposed to a mere agent" (Undated DOL memorandum). On this occasion, the issue was resolved in favor of Tri-County. The attorney for the camp provided information and assurances in an August 12, 1977 letter to the Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Employment Service in which he stated:

(Tri-County) has the authority and does recruit labor and hires the workers. Further, it supervises and pays the employees, pays the Workmen's Compensation, Withholding Taxes and Social Security, feeds, houses, provides medical care and transportation for the employees. The sole responsibility for the direct care and ultimate supervision of the employers is that of Tri-County Labor Camp, Inc., and its director.

As a result of this letter, the Department of Labor's National Solicitor's opinion on the matter, and after letters of inquiry from West Virginia's U.S. Senators Robert Byrd and Jennings Randolph, the Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Employment Service reported in a letter dated August 18, 1977, the determination that the camp did, in fact, meet the necessary legal requirements as an employer and that "...the corporation, in its entirety, is liable for any infraction thereof upon the part of any of its members with respect to all workers employed by the corporation."

Tri-County, Inc. thus entered the H-2 program in 1977, taking over many of the legal responsibilities from individual growers. However, the contracts individual growers ultimately signed with Tri-County, Inc. did not comply with West Virginia law, nor did some features comply with federal statutes. These discrepancies formed the basis for future lawsuits filed by domestic and foreign farmworkers.

In 1980, Tri-County requested 578 workers to pick an expected 2 million boxes of apples. The number of contract workers in West Virginia for the apple harvest generally hovered around 500. According to figures from the West Virginia Employment Service, this was approximately one-half of the total number employed in apple picking. Researchers have found that the number of domestic farmworkers reported by the state employment offices is substantially underestimated throughout the country (USGPO 1992). It would be safer to assume that Caribbean contract workers generally accounted for between one-fourth and one-third of the number of workers hired, but due to their very high productivity, accounted for a much larger proportion of apples harvested.

Small numbers of workers from Mexico had been picking apples in West Virginia for years, however, as in many harvests along the eastern seaboard, their participation began to expand during the 1980s. Nevertheless, the President of the WV Horticultural Society lamented, "Able and willing harvest help is almost nil. Some local and migrant and illegal help is available but they are not in sufficient numbers...So, consequently, we hire all able and willing pickers, be they locals, migrants, off-shore, or illegals, and I am sorry to say, if it weren't for the latter (illegals), we all would be in great trouble. It is a shame that we are so regulated that it keeps some from operating legally, or that we can't operate without constant hassle every year" (MG 1983). Resentment against a government that essentially "forced" growers to hire illegal workers was a theme that again was expressed strongly by growers during interviews eleven years later.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) made periodic raids during the late 1970s and early 1980s to apprehend undocumented workers, occasionally disrupting a grower's harvest. More often, this underlying threat simply added to growers' generalized anxiety about the harvest. When the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was passed in 1986, a few growers indicated that they were extremely apprehensive about the effects this would have on their labor supply. As was the case throughout the country, however, fears of possible labor shortages were unfounded. In fact, WV growers now consider the INS to be less of a threat in terms of removing workers than it was prior to IRCA. Nevertheless, IRCA added to the paperwork of employers with its requirement that a form verifying work authorization be completed for each new hire. In addition, growers joined the chorus predicting that were the employer sanctions of IRCA to be effectively enforced, they would lose a significant portion of their harvest labor force.

Haitians also joined the harvest work force in the early 1980s, as was the case in many other areas along the eastern seaboard. While there are still Haitians employed in West Virginia apple orchards, their participation has fallen over the years. Many growers reported having difficulty with Haitian workers, as they were felt to be more intractable than were other workers. At the same time, there was some sentiment that an advantage of working with Haitian pickers was that since they were more vocal, you knew where you stood -- when there were problems and what they were. This was contrasted with the sense that Mexican workers were less likely to complain, but were more likely to leave in the middle of the harvest, without the employer even knowing they were dissatisfied.

By the mid 1980s, growers were hiring African-American migrants, Haitians, a few local Jamaicans who had left their H-2 contracts and settled in the area, Mexican workers, both documented and undocumented, and Jamaican workers under H-2 contracts.


While the 1992 apple harvest in West Virginia was the first in years in which no non-immigrant Jamaican workers were employed, the proportion of such workers had steadily decreased over the preceding few years. At the same time, the proportion of Mexican workers employed in the harvest had been increasing. The end result was that, despite the fact that the 1992 apple crop was a bumper crop, there was no wide-spread labor shortage that would lead either to crop losses or to a change in recruitment patterns or wages and working conditions as growers attempted to assemble a harvest work force. Large numbers of Mexican-born workers came to the area seeking jobs in the apple harvest. Many traveled to the area with no concrete offer of employment, but as a result of the informal communications network among workers that depends on word-of-mouth reports and the hope of finding employment for at least a few weeks.

Apple growers in West Virginia continued to have little use for the state Employment Service. They avoided that method of recruitment for two reasons: because they felt good workers seek employment directly and because they would rather by-pass any government agency if at all possible. A few apple growers were facing severe financial difficulties, in part as a result of fines they owed for non-compliance with various labor regulations. Most, however, despite a long litany of complaints, were looking forward to an extremely lucrative harvest season.

Most apple harvesting was accomplished by young men who were born in Mexico. They came to the area for the harvest, and left in search of other work or to return to their villages in Mexico when the harvest was completed. There were also, however, a significant number of local workers, primarily African-Americans and Jamaicans, who assisted in the harvest. While many local workers picked apples, many others provided harvest support functions--driving tractors and trucks and supervising crews.

Workers lived both on migrant labor camps and in scattered houses and trailers throughout the area. The community as a whole does not provide a particularly welcoming environment to migrant workers, and few workers interacted with others outside of their immediate surroundings.

Recruitment and Retention

With no Jamaican H-2A workers in the area, the possibility of at least some growers having difficulty in assembling an adequate harvest work force in 1992 seemed real. As has chronically been the case, there were scattered growers who did complain that they had not been able to find enough workers. However, the general experience that growers reported, whether or not they had used H-2A workers in previous years, was that there were more than enough workers in the area. In fact, many reported turning surplus workers away or sending them to a nearby grower where they might find a job.

Growers did very little to actively recruit workers. As one said, "I just wait for them to come up the driveway," and another, "You don't find them, they find you." Many growers who had a long-term relationship with a crew leader reported being in touch with him over the winter, either by telephone or even by visiting his home in Florida. Others maintained contact with workers who stayed after the harvest to help with pruning. Other than that, growers simply assumed that workers knew the area and would arrive again the next season.

Very few reported using the state Employment Service. Almost invariably, growers felt that workers referred through the Employment Service were the least desirable of the lot. Some said they would turn to the Employment Service, but only as a last resort. "I've tried using them in the past, but they were more of a hindrance than a help. Workers don't like dealing with the bureaucracy any more than growers do, so it is pretty much irrelevant."

Some growers reported a very low turnover rate (approximately 10 percent), while others reported having a difficult time retaining workers, with turnover rates as high as 100 percent. Surprisingly, this difference appeared unrelated to whether or not the grower provided housing. A difference was, however, that growers who did have housing had an easier time replacing workers who left than did those growers with no worker housing. Growers assumed that having housing would provide them with an edge in attracting workers. If there was not a labor surplus, this appears to be a safe assumption, as workers expressed a clear preference for working for a grower who also provided housing. There was a slight tendency for growers who had recently used the H-2A program to have higher turnover rates. Some assumed that it just took a few years for things to sort themselves out and the grower to identify a stable core of workers, while others were resigned to a high rate of instability in their harvest work force.

Approximately one-half of growers used a crew leader or farm labor contractor. This individual was used primarily for recruitment and supervision. Employers paid the workers with individual checks, although the crew leader often did the actual distribution. In some instances, growers indicated that they did not use a crew leader, while workers employed by that grower reported that they were employed and paid by one. This difference in perception lies in the informal relationships that often develop on a crew, particularly a Spanish-speaking crew when only one individual is bilingual and tends to speak for the others.

Experiences with Workers

There was a wide range of experiences that growers reported with their seasonal workers. Some had nothing but praise for their workers, who they felt "take pride in their work." "Workers have the American dream just like everyone else--they are just trying to make it." More frequent was an assessment of their work force as consisting of some very good workers and a few trouble makers. The problem lay in how to get rid of the bad workers. Many growers felt constrained in firing workers, fearing that they would take a reasonable action, one that any employer should be able to take, but that it would land them in legal trouble. In contrast, a few reported nothing but difficulties with their harvest workers, detailing a series of "horror stories" of workers destroying housing, shaking trees and bruising most of the fruit, leaving in the middle of the season with no prior notice, complaining excessively of circumstances beyond the grower's control, and finally, going to Legal Services with unjustified complaints and demands.

Many growers felt that the "quality" of the domestic work force (excluding Mexican-born workers who had received legal status through IRCA) had been steadily deteriorating over the past 20 or 30 years: U.S. citizens were felt to be uninterested in farm work and would prefer to live off welfare than pick apples, while local Jamaican workers had become "Americanized" and lost their work ethic. All but one grower who had previously used the H-2 program agreed that Jamaican contract workers were the best workers. The majority of growers, however, felt that Mexican immigrants were proving to be a suitable substitute. The legal status of Mexican workers appeared to be of little concern to growers. A few had an older work force (workers in their mid-20s and 30s) with workers who were legalized under the Special Agricultural Worker provisions of IRCA. Other Mexican workers were in their late teens and early 20s, thus unlikely to have qualified for legalization through IRCA. Nevertheless, workers with no documents were not hired. While the authenticity of the documents presented, according to many growers, was suspect (one estimated that 40-50 percent were fraudulent), the way the law was written, they felt their responsibility was to comply with the paperwork requirements, which they were doing.

Many growers, both those who had and those who had not used the H-2 program to bring in Jamaican apple pickers, were angry at what they saw as the Government's inconsistency in dealing with foreign workers. They perceived a strong preference for Mexican workers. In their view, the H-2A program was of economic benefit to Jamaica. Contract workers had many protections while working in the United States, more protections than were provided to non-contract workers. They felt that the implicit, de facto message was that it was OK to hire Mexican workers, even if they were not legally in the United States, but not OK to hire legal Jamaican workers through a highly structured, highly regulated, government-sponsored program.

In general, by 1992 the concerns expressed by apple growers about the harvest work force were less over the supply of workers and much more over questions of how to keep up and comply with the myriad of rules and regulations stipulating how a grower must deal with seasonal agricultural workers.

Profile of Workers

As is the case in most seasonal, labor intensive agricultural occupations in the United States, in 1992 the work force was primarily composed of young men, traveling alone.

Almost one-half of the workers in 1992 had entered the United States since 1986, the year they would have had to be in the country to qualify for legal status through IRCA. Workers reported that in all parts of the country, employers were asking for documents, but that the documents the Mexican workers had been able to purchase were never questioned (None of the Haitian or Jamaican workers interviewed reported purchasing documents.) Some reported that agricultural employers were more likely to ask for documents than were employers in other occupations. "I've worked in a turkey processing plant, but they never ask for my papers. On the farms, you always have to have papers."

The Latinization of the West Virginia Apple Harvest

While the harvest work force throughout the western and midwestern United States has been dominated by Mexican-born workers for years, this is a more recent phenomenon along the eastern seaboard (see Heppel and Amendola 1992 and Griffith and Kissam 1992). Of the 89 workers interviewed during 1992, 69 percent were born in Mexico; 16 percent in Jamaica; 13 percent in Haiti, and 2 percent were African-Americans born in the United States. Only 18 percent of the workers and none of the Mexican workers interviewed reported speaking English at least relatively well. Mexican-born workers had all entered the country through Texas, 40 percent of whom went straight to Florida for their first job, which was likely to be in agriculture. The rest worked briefly in Texas before traveling to Florida. Three (4 percent) came directly from Mexico through Texas and to the West Virginia apple harvest, after hearing about jobs in West Virginia while in Mexican villages.

Four workers reported paying a coyote $500 for help in getting across the border. Once in the United States, they purchased documents and found work in agriculture.

Many foreign-born workers retained strong ties to their home countries. Only two of the Mexican-born workers had spouses living in the United States. Sixty percent of the Mexican-born workers listed their primary place of residence as Mexico; the rest called Florida home. Most Mexican-born workers traveled home each year to visit. Of those, two-thirds worked there in agriculture, generally tending their own plot of land, while the rest either held non-agricultural jobs or simply visited with their friends and families before returning each year to the United States. Many Mexican-born workers regularly send money to their families in their home villages, generally money orders for $200 to $300 each month.

Local Jamaican Workers

Gradually, Jamaicans have been settling in the Martinsburg area. During the early and mid-1980s, each year a few had simply not returned to Jamaica as required under their H-2 visas. This settlement process sped up in the late 1980s as many workers applied for residence status under the IRCA. Many Jamaican workers had been employed through contract work in Florida sugar cane as well as apples. When IRCA was first passed, it was assumed that work in these two crops would serve as qualifying employment, allowing H-2 workers to gain work authorization outside of H-2 contracts. By the time sugar cane was deemed a non-eligible crop, many Jamaican workers had already taken steps toward becoming immigrant instead of non-immigrant workers--they had failed to sign up for work in sugar cane, had rented apartments in the United States, and some had begun to seek jobs in other industries. At the time of this study, many Jamaican-born workers in West Virginia had provisional work-authorization cards that were soon to expire. With these provisional cards, workers had been afraid to leave the United States, for fear of later being denied entry. They thus had been unable to visit their families in Jamaica since 1989. The majority of Jamaican workers interviewed were planning to remain in the area in the hopes that the U.S. government would once again change its mind regarding their eligibility for immigrant status. "I want to go back, but I'm afraid of what will happen then. I need to see my wife and my children, but I will wait until I can get the amnesty so they can come join me in the United States." Several felt that they had no other hope, as they assumed they had been "blackballed" in Jamaica for attempting to leave the program and would not again be approved for contract work in the United States.

Jamaican workers vastly preferred work in apples to work in sugar cane. Most felt, however, that apple harvest wages were too low. This is undoubtedly partially explained by the fact that they were now trying to make a living in the United States instead of in Jamaica, where the cost of living is a fraction of what it is in this country. Other workers felt that daily earnings in the apple harvest were good. Their major complaint was that the season was too short.

Jamaican workers also differed from the other apple harvest workers in that they felt that there had been a labor shortage this apple season. Workers consistently stated that there were too few workers available for the season. This perception appears to be based on the fact the Jamaican workers were generally segregated from the larger Mexican work force. They had been told by the farmers for which they worked that more workers, that is more Jamaican workers, were needed. While several of the workers had faced difficulty in finding employment at different farms, Jamaican workers based their responses on the information they received from their particular employers. As a result, Jamaican workers' personal experiences and communication with former H-2 workers, and perhaps the orchards in which they were now employed, left them with a very different perspective of the 1992 harvest season than that held by the Mexican workers interviewed. Given the uncertainty surrounding their future legal status, and their sense of betrayal over the fact that legalization had been promised and then denied, workers were, in general, extremely anxious about their futures. From informal discussions with workers, it became clear that this general anxiety colored many of their perceptions. Most workers interviewed were planning on staying in West Virginia, hoping to get jobs pruning and picking peaches. Their major concern in terms of this future employment was that they needed to earn more money.

Network "Recruitment"

While growers report that they did little active recruiting, workers report that overwhelmingly they not only heard about jobs in West Virginia through word-of-mouth, but traveled to the area with friends or relatives to obtain these jobs. "I asked my friends in North Carolina about other jobs and they invited me to come to West Virginia with them." "My brother had worked in apples here last year, so he told me about it." No workers interviewed reported finding their job through the state Employment Service. Over 80 percent of all workers initially came to West Virginia based on the report of a friend or family member. Sixty-five percent of all workers said they had a family member working in the 1992 West Virginia apple harvest. Haitians were the exception to this pattern. No Haitian worker interviewed indicated that they had a relative employed in West Virginia. Among Mexican workers, 83 percent reported having a cousin or brother currently employed in the area.

A New, but Experienced, Work Force

For 38 percent of the workers interviewed, the 1992 apple harvest was their first experience picking apples. Of those who had been in West Virginia before, the number was equally divided among those who had been here for 3 years or more and those who had worked in West Virginia apples for less than 3 years. Of the workers who had previously worked in West Virginia, only one-third had worked for the same employer in years past. Thus while individual employers may have had difficulty retaining workers, the West Virginia apple harvest as a whole appears to have been successful in retaining its work force.

While many workers had no experience in apples, they did have experience in agriculture, and even in fruit picking. Fifty-five percent of the workers interviewed had been employed either in citrus or in peaches immediately prior to the West Virginia apple harvest. Of the remainder, 11 percent had come from blueberries, and nine percent from tobacco.

Although most workers had experience in farm work, over half (61 percent) had also held jobs outside of agriculture. These jobs were generally in construction, meat or poultry processing, and yard work. These workers nevertheless continued to return to West Virginia for the apple harvest.

Perceptions of Apple Harvest Work

Sixty percent of the workers interviewed reported that they were currently working for a farm labor contractor. Others said that while they were directly employed by a grower, a farm labor contractor or crew leader was the one who paid them. Often this consisted of simply distributing the checks, however other contractors cashed the checks and then paid the workers in cash. Workers were evenly divided in their response to whether they could name and/or recognize the grower for whom they worked. While 40 percent said they never saw the grower during the season, 25 percent reported daily contact with the grower.

Only two of those interviewed reported being paid hourly wages, the rest saying they were paid either by the bin or the bushel. Workers earned an average of $200 each week. This ranged from reported weekly earnings of $130 to $350. Most of the Mexican-born workers reported that they could earn more money in apples than they could in other crops. "It is more difficult to pick apples without damaging them than it is to pick onions or tomatoes, but I can make more money in West Virginia than in Texas." Twenty percent thought that they were going to receive an end-of-season bonus, but many were not sure approximately how much that would be or how it would be calculated.

Many workers live in labor camps on the grower's property. None of the workers interviewed reported being charged for such housing. Grower-provided labor camps were generally in good condition, and workers voiced no complaints about the housing. Generally workers felt that grower-provided housing in West Virginia compared favorably to that in other parts of the country, and was something that they considered to be an advantage to working in the apple harvest. "The rooms are very nice here because they have heat." One exception was workers who were living in an old farmhouse on the grower's property. While, again, workers did not complain, the structure was in flagrant violation of migrant housing codes and had enough workers living in it that it was subject to inspection.

Workers who were not on labor camps were paying a significant portion of their earnings for housing, much of which was overcrowded and decrepit. "There are five of us in this room. There is no heating and many bugs." These structures included rental units in town and trailers on the outskirts of town. Many of these were overcrowded. The most extreme example of overcrowding and overpayment was eight single men living in one trailer, each paying $50 each week. This rent ($1,600 each month) was paid to a labor contractor, although not the contractor for whom they were currently working. Other workers paid between $50 and $85 dollars apiece per week for shared housing, but there were only 2 or 3 men per room or trailer.

In contrast, some of the Jamaican workers lived in extremely well-kept, standard apartment units in town. Without exception, these were workers who lived in the area year-round and worked in other jobs in addition to apple harvesting. Several workers who did not live on labor camps also had to pay someone for daily rides to the orchard. Costs for this ranged from $10 to $25 per week, with most paying $15.

Affordable housing is an increasing problem for farmworkers in West Virginia, as it is in many parts of the United States. While the Tri-County labor camp in Martinsburg was used by a couple of growers, it was not nearly at full capacity. One grower in the area has constructed a new labor camp, but over the years, many more have stopped housing workers than have begun to.


The Panhandle of West Virginia has, and continues to have, very few year-round minority residents. The 1990 Census presented the population of Berkeley County as over 95% white. Nevertheless, over the past 20 years, a few Jamaican workers who had come to West Virginia under H-2 or H-2A contracts decided to stay in the area, rather than return to Jamaica as they were legally obligated. Many of these workers married local women and have thus obtained legal status. During the SAW legalization process, a larger number of H-2 workers ended up settling out. This was largely because of confusion over the eligibility of sugar cane as a qualifying crop, as many workers would have been eligible for SAW status had work in sugar cane been counted toward the 90 day work requirement. Despite this gradual "leakage" from the H-2A program, there is no significant Jamaican community in the West Virginia Panhandle, and there has been no continuing influx since 1989-90. Many of the 50-100 Jamaicans who remain in the area continue to harvest apples, often on weekends, but have individually accommodated to the larger community and have been incorporated to a greater or lesser extent based on their individual circumstances.

In addition to this history of Jamaicans coming to the area, because of its proximity to the metropolitan areas of Washington, DC and Baltimore and Frederick, MD, the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia for years has seen a scattering of foreign-born individuals who have settled in the area. Many of these were well-educated, professionally trained immigrants who took their place in the community as outsiders, but were gradually accepted into the mainstream. It is a different story with Mexican migrant farmworkers, a growing proportion of whom are interested in remaining in this area year-round. It is highly likely that the Census of the year 2000 will find a significant minority presence in Berkeley County.

A Growing Mexican Presence

This story, which is just beginning to unfold, is characterized by long term residents as a mismatch of cultures involving differences in both social class and ethnic background. Educators lament the fact that schooling is not a priority for Mexican families. The police are concerned that Mexican workers simply don't know the rules. And landlords are reluctant to rent to Mexicans, assuming they will be faced with overcrowding in and destruction of their units, as well as anticipating that these tenants will not, in fact, rent throughout the year. Commenting on the current lack of integration, one observer remarked that Mexicans "make no effort to join the mainstream. Their hearts, and sometimes their women, are in Mexico." Another pointed out the closed, conservative nature of the larger community--a community that was, until recently, highly heterogenous. It is the resulting mindset that actively works to keep outsiders on the fringes of society.

All Mexicans in the area, regardless of their current occupation or the time of year they are there, are referred to and assumed to be "migrants." The long history of "separateness" which has characterized the relationship between migrants and the local community continues to guide the community's reaction to a growing, year-round presence of Mexicans. Currently there are perhaps 400-600 Mexicans in the area, almost all of whom are former farmworkers. This includes both family groups and single men. As this community has grown, a few friends or relatives, with no experience in farmwork, have begun to join them. We assume this trend will increase.

With an increasing Mexican presence, there has come to be significant access to "things Mexican" in the Panhandle. In the Martinsburg, WV area alone there are four grocery stores whose merchandise is predominantly appropriate for Mexican cooking. At the nearby Harpers Ferry flea market, tapes and CDs of Mexican music are sold. There are three Mexican restaurants and a new operation in the downtown area that sells Spanish-language videos in the front of the store and has a pool table in back.

Migrant farmworkers, for years, have rented apartments in town because there was not enough space on the labor camps. More recently, not only has this number grown, but the rentals are year-round. More and more one sees Mexican-looking faces walking the streets and shopping at the nearby malls and hears Spanish conversations on the street corners. Wal-mart has even begun to make some store-wide announcements in Spanish. The Health Clinic reports the need for translators several times a week in the winter, when the bilingual migrant health program is not operating.

Mexican immigrants to the community are finding jobs on construction, landscaping, and quarry crews; in stable-work at the Charles Town race track; at poultry plants further down the Shenandoah Valley; and behind the scenes in local restaurants. Women are also working as domestic help and at local hotels. While there continues to be widespread discimination, few Mexicans have chosen to fight this. This appears to be based on fear--many feel they will lose their papers if they go to court or cause any trouble--as well as a basic desire to avoid problems in their new home. In addition, few workers know their rights, particularly outside of the context of farmwork.

At this time, Mexicans in the Panhandle include former SAWS who are trying to bring their families to the United States and single men, most of whom are relatively recent arrivals from Mexico. Many of these either have married or are dating local white women.

Local residents have not yet acknowledged a Mexican "community" in the area, although it is clear that cooperative networks link the year-round Mexican residents. Mexicans share cars and information, providing temporary housing to friends and relatives and other kinds of support when necessary. As yet, however, there is no structure that serves as a community center and no Mexican-dominated church (although a priest comes in each Sunday to perform Mass in Spanish), and no clearly defined residential center. Given the rate at which a year-round Mexican presence has developed over the past few years, one would assume that in the very near future the outer trappings of a clearly identified community, however, will become more apparent.

As of yet there has been no sustained tension between the immigrant Mexican community and the long-resident white community. Several tension points, however, are beginning to develop. One is an increasing need for bilingual services. Currently there is no translation available at the city hospital, the courts, or the Division of Motor Vehicles. The public schools have access to English as a Second Language (ESL) training for teachers through the State Department of Education, but growing numbers of Spanish-speaking school children are beginning to strain those resources. ESL classes for adults are overflowing. As these demand for services have grown, these highly visible areas of problems in communication are beginning to show the underlying strains from a growing Hispanic presence in an historically homogeneous and conservative area.


The proximity of the Eastern Panhandle of Virginia to major metropolitan centers is a significant factor in attracting farmworkers to settle out into the area. While clearly small-town living, the Panhandle is within commuting distance of employment in rapidly growing suburban areas and to Washington, DC, with its strong Hispanic community. Large numbers of unskilled workers can join construction and landscaping crews that commute to growing areas around the western fringes of Washington, making them increasingly knowledgeable regarding outside resources. West Virginia residents, including settled-out Mexican farmworkers, are working, for example, on expanding the Washington-Dulles International Airport and building fences for ex-urban homeowners in Fairfax County. Others are commuting to a number of poultry-processing plants in the nearby Shenandoah Valley. Farmwork--pruning, clearing the orchards, and harvesting--is available for part-time work on weekends.

During the era of contract workers in West Virginia apple harvesting, there was a gradual "leakage" of Jamaican workers into the Eastern Panhandle. This was followed by a cluster of workers in 1989-90 who were hoping for legalization under the SAW program. Since that time, the Jamaican presence has not grown and the relationship between Jamaicans and the largely white community has been characterized by individual accomodation and a wary tolerance of these individuals' presence.

The process of the settling out of farmworkers into West Virginia has sped up with the large-scale arrival of Mexican farmworkers, primarily families from Guanajuato and Matamoros and individuals from Hidalgo and Michoacan. These workers come to West Virginia with an extremely pragmatic approach to "getting by." This is in contrast to the huge psychological leap required of Jamaicans to abandon the H-2 (or H-2A) program and thus forfeit any chance of again working as a contract worker. At this point, the boom economy due to nearby urban and suburban growth, the availability of low-wage, low-skill jobs, the low unemployment rate, the small-town environment which remains relatively free of drugs and crime, and as yet only passive resistance from the larger community, have all contributed to an ever-growing movement of farmworkers into year-round jobs in this area. It is likely that a Mexican community is likely to take root and grow substantially in the years ahead.


Griffith, David and Ed Kissam

1992 The Farm Labor Supply Study. USDOL, Office of Policy Studies, unpublished manuscript.

Heppel, Monica L and Sandra L. Amendola

1992 Immigration Reform and Perishable Crop Agriculture: Compliance or Circumvention. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Mountaineer Grower (MG)

various dates Proceedings of the West Virginia Horticultural Society. Martinsburg, WV.

USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

various dates Noncitrus Fruits and Nuts. National Agricultural Statistics Service.

USGPO (U.S. Government Printing Office)

1992 Report of the Commission on Agricultural Workers.

WVBEP (WV Bureau of Employment Programs)

1993 West Virginia Economic Summary. Charleston, WV.