NJ blueberry farmer cites US ‘torment’ on workers’ conditions

Posted June 25, 2011, at 5:29 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — What’s the price to escape torment?

Ask Anthony “Butch” DiMeo Jr., who owns Columbia Fruit Farms Inc., a 300-acre-plus blueberry farm.

He’ll tell you $1.54 million — the amount he and his cousin William DiMeo spent to improve living conditions for the 300 Haitian workers now picking blueberries the size of marbles on their farm in Hammonton, N.J.

“They were tormenting us,” Butch DiMeo said, referring to the U.S. Department of Labor inspectors who routinely dropped by his farm, uncovering a litany of complaints — overcrowding, inadequate kitchen facilities, lack of showers, lack of toilets, no lockers.

“They just torment you,” he said, as he drove around his farm in a pickup last week, showing off new dormitories, shower facilities and a brand-new kitchen.

He didn’t have much time to talk — the short, intense blueberry season was in full throttle, and whatever he and his cousin earned in the next seven weeks would need to take them through the rest of the year.

For Butch DiMeo, the $1.54 million represents a big bet — that hand-picking berries remains the right strategy, even as harvesting machines, long considered coarse and wasteful, are becoming more technologically advanced.

It’s the same old dance, this one around a blueberry bush. Will technology replace workers? Meanwhile, how much can workers afford to complain? What are reasonable conditions? Are they humane?

And finally, how much slack should farm owners be cut, considering the season is short and the weather dicey?

“Down the road, they’re not going to use pickers,” said Gary C. Pavlis, a Rutgers University professor and Atlantic County’s agricultural agent. He wonders if the DiMeo cousins made the right bet.

“If they are going to be hassled constantly, they may as well move on to something else,” said Pavlis, who says the cousins are good men and respectful to their workers.

Blueberries are big business in New Jersey — no other crop, not Jersey tomatoes, corn or peaches, yields as much on the market, $62.5 million in 2010.

Cultivated berries were developed in Burlington County in the early 1900s by plant biologist Elizabeth White. Her family owned a cranberry farm in Whitesbog.

By all accounts, the cousins’ farm, founded by their grandfather, is typical when it comes to violations.

“This farm doesn’t represent the worst of the worst,” said Jessica Culley, an organizer with CATA in Glassboro. CATA is a Spanish acronym for a workers’ group.

“Columbia isn’t a bad farm, but that’s just because our baseline is so low. These people spent money, and I’m glad they did,” she said. “But they spent it because they had to.”

Besides the $1.54 million, the cousins spent $480,000 for an adjacent farm — mainly for the extra housing space, Butch DiMeo said.

Between both farms, the DiMeos constructed new shower facilities with 28 showers and 48 washtubs, including 18 outdoor tubs. He added a new kitchen and more toilets and lockers.

New dorms were built. Butch DiMeo pointed out the details, such as sturdy screens, able to sustain the brunt of a soccer ball from the sandy lot used during off hours.

He had just picked up a new refrigerator Tuesday to replace a broken one.

Butch DiMeo “finally gets it,” said Patrick Reilly, director of the southern New Jersey district office of the U.S. Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division.

“It took a while, but he was at the point where this became an obligation he had to address. He’s putting his money where his mouth is. This is the biggest amount [put to abatement of violations] that I’ve seen since I’ve been doing this, which is 30 years.”

On June 8, the U.S. Labor Department announced that the DiMeo cousins and Haitian crew leader Sorel Rinvil had been ordered to pay $28,499 to resolve fines imposed after three years of violations. The fines were less than originally assessed, due to the DiMeos’ efforts.

Typical were the overcrowding violations. In 2008, 123 people were living in a camp designed for 100, and 151 were living in another for 130, the Labor Department said.

The cousins’ attorney, Frank Olivo, of Hammonton, said that overcrowding sometimes happened because the workers brought along family members. Butch DiMeo said his farm’s growth outstripped his capacity to house the workers, who winter in Belle Glade, Fla.

The workers traveled on unsafe buses, driven by unlicensed operators hired by Rinvil, the Labor Department said. By law, Rinvil and the cousins are responsible.

This year, Butch DiMeo said he spent $40,000 to lease commercial-grade buses operated by licensed drivers.

It was a good move.

DiMeo said there is a labor shortage on Atlantic County blueberry farms because the Labor Department is cracking down on bad transportation and turning back workers headed north.

“I feel great,” he said. “If I didn’t bus these people here, I’d be in big trouble. I have a crop, but I wouldn’t have any workers to pick them.”

 

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