PEABODY — There were pointed questions at the City Council about building new housing for the migrants who work at Brooksby Farm.
But in the end, the council unanimously approved spending $180,000 to get started on a new home for the up to eight workers who help produce the fruit crop each year.
Councilor Jim Liacos was outspoken in questioning the new housing, noting that he lives nearby and has concerns about who these workers are. Why hire outside people, he asked city officials during a meeting of the finance subcommittee on Wednesday. Are they given criminal background checks and drug tests?
“Why not put them up in the apartments down the street?” he asked, noting later, “Every night, they walk down to the Northshore Mall.” They could just as easily walk to apartments, he suggested. “I’m not necessarily against the program. I just don’t see why we have to permanently house them at the farm.”
Brooksby Farm manager Pat Kriksceonaitis, along with Jennifer Davis of the Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department, outlined a brief history of the migrants, whose previous bunkhouse, located behind the farm store and barn, was declared inadequate by a state Department of Labor inspector last year.
As a result, according to Davis, the migrants are already missing out on work, which ordinarily begins about this time of year, as they wait for their new facility to be built. It will also be located behind the main building but at the opposite end. City officials previously set the completion date as June 15.
“I would love to get some local people to work in the fields,” Kriksceonaitis said. Citizens or “anyone with a green card has priority.”
Yet, some don’t want to do the work, he explained, and others lack experience. “It’s skilled work.” Picking fruit while avoiding bruising, for example, is not easy.
“We wouldn’t be doing this process if it wasn’t needed,” Kriksceonaitis said. A federal program allows migrant farm workers to come to the U.S. from a number of countries, including Jamaica. Brooksby is not the only farm that relies on Jamaican workers, Kriksceonaitis observed.
Background checks and drug tests are included as part of the process, Davis said.
As to drug use, Kriksceonaitis added, “They can’t work 12 hours a day out in the fields on drugs. If they did, they’d be dead. They’re held to high standards.”
Migrants have been coming to Brooksby for 23 years, and at least one of the original Jamaican workers now comes with his son, according to Kriksceonaitis. Before that, the farm was owned privately and Canadians did the picking. While some of the workers arrive as early as April, most are on-site from July to October. All are male.
Because of complex federal regulations, housing the workers off-site, at an apartment, would make the whole process more difficult, Kriksceonaitis said.
The new bunkhouse will be a ranch-style structure, roughly 45 by 27 feet, with no basement, four bedrooms, two toilets and a common area supporting a kitchen and lounge with television.
“This is what the city should be doing,” member Arthur Athas said after hearing the testimony. “It’s a good thing to do.”