The blueberry pickers who travel to Columbia Fruit Farms Inc. in Hammonton are Haitian and come from Belle Glade, Florida. They get paid $3.50 per flat and work a short and intense season in South Jersey, living in big barracks, painted a pale blue. During their time off, they play soccer and they attend church right at the camp, under a huge shaded pavilion. You can read my Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer article about the $1.5 million Columbia Fruit Farms owners Anthony "Butch" DiMeo Jr. and his cousin William DiMeo spent to improve conditions at the farm after being repeatedly fined by the U.S. Labor Department.
This year, Butch DiMeo said, his workers are being paid about $3.50 a flat -- that's about average. They get a ticket for every flat and turn those tickets in for a paycheck. If the pickers don't pick enough to earn minimum wage, the grower has to make up the difference.
A flat is 12 pints, roughly 10 pounds, and they are selling now for about $17 to $19 a flat, estimated Gary Pavlis, the Atlantic County agricultural agent for Rutgers University's New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. Later in the season, the flat price will fall to $12 or $14. A typical yield, he said, is 1,200 flats per acre. Butch DiMeo said it takes about seven years for a berry bush to reach maximum productivity. The first year, the plant is grown in a container and later moved to field. For the next few years, the plant must be aggressively pruned to achieve its maximum yield.
Most bushes get picked three to four times as the berries come to the ripened stage at different times. The first time is fairly easy, meaning the pickers can quickly fill up a flat. The second pick is even easier. But the third and fourth picks are harder because there are fewer berries on the bush, explained Jessica Culley, an organizer with CATA, a farmworkers' organization (El Comite de Apoya a Los Trabajadores Agricolas).
Sometimes growers use a machine for the final pick, but the machines, so far, aren't good enough to pick berries for eating, just for processing into pie filling or jam. The machines use air to blow the ones that are ripe enough into a container, but a lot are wasted, Pavlis said.
Blueberries are New Jersey's largest cash crop, yielding $62.5 million in 2010. Peaches and tomatoes yield about half that -- roughly $32 million and sweet corn is about a quarter of the total at $15 million.
There are about 300 Haitian berry pickers at Columbia Fruit Farms. They are recruited and paid through a crew leader, Sorel Rinvil, who was also fined, along with the owners. Rinvil's violations primarily concerned transportation. He was cited for bringing them up in unsafe vehicles operated by unlicensed drivers. As far as the U.S. Labor Department is concerned, Rinvil and the DiMeo cousins are co-employers, meaning both of them are technically responsible for the lawful treatment of the workers.
The DiMeos also employ a crew of Mexicans to handle processing and packing. The two groups don't intermingle that much and some of the Mexicans have year-round work at the farm.