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Franklin Co. honors migrant workers

May 06, 1999|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Each year, hundreds of migrant farmworkers pick tens of millions of pounds of apples and peaches in Franklin County, contributing millions of dollars to the local economy.

"Without them, there's a lot of things that don't get grown or harvested," said D. Gerald Edwards, owner and president of Mountain Brook Orchards Inc., St. Thomas, Pa. He said much of the food that ends up on the dinner table can be picked only by people, not machines.

Thursday the Franklin County Commissioners issued a proclamation making May Farmworkers Month. Ray Kauffman, the executive director of the Fruitbelt Farmworkers Ministry, said Cumberland and Adams counties have also passed similar proclamations.

"The main concern now is the number of workers that are going to be available for the fruit," Kauffman told the commissioners. Some growers have had problems in recent years getting enough migrant workers for the harvest months from August to October.

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"It's a reflection of the good economy," Commissioner G. Warren Elliott said.

Edwards said he has about 700 acres of apple orchards and needs about 125 pickers at harvest time.

"Oftentimes, you can't get that many," he said. "It depends on how brisk the economy is."

A few years ago, Edwards said he had to turn workers away, but now the labor market is tight and "everybody is looking for workers."

"It is a tough life," Edwards said about the migrant workers. He said his business must also deal with a myriad of federal and state agencies, from the federal and state departments of agriculture and labor to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Kauffman said about 4,000 migrant workers come to Franklin, Fulton and Adams counties each year looking for work. About 800 of them come to Franklin County.

Those workers pick more than 400 million pounds of fruit worth $44 million, according to the proclamation. About 64 million pounds of fruit worth $7 million is picked in Franklin County.

Kauffman said about 80 percent of the workers are from Mexico.

"We provide spiritual and social services" ranging from church services in migrant camps to assistance with food, housing, health care and social activities, Kauffman said.

Edwards said some of his workers have been coming back for 15 years or more. He said Fruitbelt's services "give them more a feeling that they are appreciated."

"The local medical profession has really done wonders," donating medical and dental services, according to Edwards.

Not all of the migrant workers move on when the harvest ends. Some get year round jobs with food processors and other companies. Elliott said the county has reacted to the increasing number of Spanish-speaking residents by hiring two bilingual employees.

Rosalie Lerner has been an intake worker for the Homeless Assistance Program for about nine months. Areli Breese is a community outreach worker in both Chambersburg and Waynesboro, Pa., serving as an advocate for mental health and children's programs.

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