UMPQUA, Ore. — Twenty years ago when the blueberry bushes began to bear fruit, Paul and Sandy Norris gave their daughters and their friends some summer work.
One of the reasons the Norrises established the blueberry farm was to expose their daughters — Amy, Carrie and Ellie — to agriculture and the different aspects of farming. The teenage girls and their friends helped with harvesting, packing and shipping the crop.
The farm has since grown to 550 acres of mature blueberry bushes, and hundreds of young people of high school and college age from the area have worked in Norris Blueberry Farms’ fields and the packing and shipping facility. This year the business employed 180 seasonal workers during the busiest of weeks from mid-June through July. Their work helped the farm package and ship blueberries bound for the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada and West Coast distribution centers for different U.S. companies.
“We enjoy working with the youth,” Paul Norris said. “It is what we want to do. We wouldn’t want it any other way. Some day we may have to change it, but it’s working very well right now.”
Norris and state agricultural representatives said they believe the farm and its packing facility are the only berry operations in Oregon that hire the majority of their summer packing and shipping help from the high school and college ranks of nearby communities. Other berry facilities in the state that need a large number of workers during harvest hire workers of various ages.
The Norris farm had previously also hired young people and other community members to pick blueberries during harvest, but the management and paperwork required for those workers and their inconsistent presence and quantity picked led to the farm going with contract pickers only. The farm also uses mechanical pickers to harvest fruit for the frozen market.
Norris, who is now 71, said compared to when he was a youth, there aren’t many opportunities for today’s youth to experience agriculture and to learn how to work hard. He is pleased his farm can continue to offer such an opportunity and he is pleased with the response of the young workers and their commitment.
“The youth who work here are absolutely amazing and resourceful,” Norris said. “They stay with the job until it is done. They learn responsibility. We have orders and we have to get them out. They have to stay with the job until it is done. The young adults know that and they respond very well.”
During the busiest time of harvest — two to three weeks from mid-June to early July — the workers put in 10- to 16-hour days.
The young people can be found out in the hot sun weighing, recording and stacking blueberries as pickers bring in the fruit. The packing and shipping barn is full of youth working on the inspection lines where blueberries are sorted, packaged, labeled and stacked on pallets for shipping. On the other side of a wall, workers feed flat cardboard into machines that turn out finished boxes.
Members of the pallet jack crew use manual and electric jacks to bring stacks of empty boxes to the inspection lines and to move pallets of boxed berries into nearby coolers.
Outside the barn, there are young people at the machine that washes the empty fruit trays, stacking them on pallets. Others hand wash the yellow buckets that pickers will use the next day in the field.
A handful of the young workers are certified in forklift use, operating those machines at one end of the barn to unload pallets of fruit coming from the field and using them at the other end of the barn to load orders into the refrigerated trailers of semi-trucks.
Hard work pays
The workers begin by earning minimum wage — $10.50 an hour — in their first summer at the farm, but can earn a raise that is retroactive to their first day on the job if they show energy and enthusiasm in getting their jobs done. The pay range for most of these workers can go up to $16 an hour, based on their specific job duties, performance and number of summers working at the farm.
Paul Norris and two of his daughters, Carrie and Ellie, who are now in their late 30s, work in the field and in the barn, providing guidance for the young workforce.
Beth Patt, 22, and Zack Moffitt, 23, are in their seventh seasons working in the farm’s barn. Kristen Beebe, 22, is in her fifth year. Anna Lake, 19, is in her second year and her sister, Sarah Lake, 17, is in her first year. Patt and Beebe are recent college graduates, Moffitt is a fifth-year college senior, Anna Lake is a college sophomore and Sarah Lake is a high school senior.
“It’s really been a good place to work,” said Patt, who worked her way up to being a barn manager. “You can make so much money in a short amount of time because of the hours. If you have a willingness to work, if you work hard for them (the Norrises), they compensate you for that.
“It’s such an opportunity,” added Patt, who will be a first-grade teacher at Dayton, Ore., this fall. “Very few places hire this many high school and college kids and pay above minimum wage. Working here helped me buy a reliable car, paid for rent and some (college) tuition.”
Moffitt said other than “bucking hay for one day,” he had held no paying job until starting at the Norris farm seven summers ago. He kept returning and this summer was the shipping/receiving manager, having the responsibilities of working with the fruit broker, truck carriers and drivers, and loading many pallets of berries into semi-trailers from the seat of a forklift.
“This job will help me with my future,” said Moffitt, who is a student at Oregon State University. “It will show potential future employers that I’m not against hard work and long hours. When it comes down to getting the job done, I will see it through to the end and not quit or pass on the responsibilities so it is easier for me. I’ve learned a hard work ethic and to get what needs to be done, done.
“It says a lot about the Norrises, who could hire a crew of adults, but instead they are teaching young kids the value of hard work and what hard work brings them,” Moffitt adds.
Beebe is a pallet jack crew leader and manages 15 young workers in the barn.
“The Norrises are very gracious in hiring young people,” she said. “You learn how to work hard here, you get an idea of what it takes to work in any company. You have to get along with people, to be able to talk with both superiors and people below you in efficient ways.
“I now have an appreciation for the work that goes into food, from a plant to a store,” she said. “There’s so much work that goes into each package, the small details along the way, the people to move it from the field to the house, along the pack lines. It’s a bigger operation than I would have ever thought if I hadn’t had the experience here.”
Sisters Anna and Sarah Lake worked in the field at a weigh-in station. Anna said it is satisfying work even if it is hard. She described herself as a “blueberry snob,” explaining that she now knows what a good blueberry should taste like.
“It’s interesting to think of the back story of where food comes from,” she said. “It was a shock to experience that but now it is cool to know the process.”
Sarah Lake added that the work has been gratifying because she knows she has been part of the process, lifting and stacking hundreds of trays of blueberries onto trailers before they leave the field.
“It’s hard for teenagers to get a job,” Sarah said. “It’s good to be able to put this job on your resume.”
The Norrises admit they have had to fire some young workers over the years, but that has been rare. They said those teenagers who can’t manage the work usually weed themselves out, quitting because the work is too hot, too hard or too long.
Ellie Norris, now a co-owner and the farm manager of the business, said she wants the farm to continue to hire a young local workforce during harvest.
“It started small with us as kids, but has become a tradition,” she said. “I wouldn’t want it any other way, to see kids in their first adult jobs, to help them with their skills, to watch them evolve into adults.
“Working with the young people does require so much more attention and assistance, more coaching, how to show up to work on time, how to communicate, how to be a reliable worker,” Ellie Norris explained. “We definitely want to continue this tradition with young people, to help shape the lives of kids in the county. We want to see these kids succeed and to go on to great things.”
Paul Norris said 40 to 50 percent of the young workforce return and work at the farm during several harvests.
“I’m just absolutely proud of these kids,” he said. “They do a great job. They know their jobs and they’re doing them.”