Resettlement agency provides workers to help pick 2012 cherry crop
By SEAN ELLIS
CALDWELL, Idaho -- Knowing he faced a significant labor shortage during peak harvest season this year, Symms Fruit Ranch co-owner Jamie Mertz turned to the Idaho Office for Refugees for help.
The move worked, as 135 refugees from countries around the world helped pick the 2012 cherry harvest at Symms, a 5,000-acre diversified farm in southwest Idaho. About 49 are picking the plum and pear harvests, which require fewer workers.
Mertz contacted Tara Wolfson, regional employment specialist with IOR, which worked with the three main resettlement agencies in the Treasure Valley to provide the workers.
"He said, 'We have a problem; we need workers,'" Wolfson said. "I said, 'We have refugees who need jobs. Let's figure out a solution.'"
The refugees come from a number of countries, including Somalia, Iraq, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mertz said the refugees adapted quickly to cultural and language differences.
"I don't think some of them are quite used to the pace of the way we do things, but they catch on," he said. "It's turned out to be a good deal for us and, I hope, for both parties."
Getting the refugees ready to work required more work on the front end, including paperwork, preparatory work, safety classes and biological training, Mertz said, but he definitely plans to use them again and would recommend them to other farmers.
While some refugees have worked at a few packing sheds in the Boise area, "this is their first experience working on a farm in Idaho," Wolfson said.
The relationship with Symms has helped refugees begin to gain self-sufficiency and it provided the fruit ranch much-needed workers, said Wolfson, who would like to work with other farms on similar arrangements.
"We'd be really interested in working with other farms in the area," she said. "We'll always have people who need an opportunity to work."
She said Symms did a great job of figuring out how to integrate people from many countries into its predominantly Spanish-speaking work force.
First, Symms officials went to Boise and showed the refugees pictures and videos of fruit harvest to familiarize them with the work. Then, management spoke to its current crew leaders to ensure them they weren't being replaced.
"I told them, 'Look, I'm not trying to replace you. I just need more people,'" Mertz said.
Wolfson said the practices developed at Symms for integrating refugees into its labor force can be adapted by other operations.
"Symms did a fabulous job figuring out how to make it work," Wolfson said. "They really thought it out."
Wolfson said many of the refugees have farming backgrounds and have flourished at Symms, which is in Idaho's Sunny Slope and famous for its temperate climate that is ideal for fruit growing.
"They are happy," she said. "It's pretty out there and (resembles) the life they love and know."