By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — The men who pick the apples may soon be getting new digs.
Mayor Ted Bettencourt will ask the City Council this week to quickly approve the construction of modular housing at a cost of $180,000 for the Jamaican farm workers who come to the city each year to labor at the city-owned Brooksby Farm.
“The city relies heavily on farm workers in the federal H-2A temporary agriculture program to operate the farm,” the mayor said in a letter to the council. “To ensure continued participation in the program, it is extremely important that we provide housing that will comply with the requirements of the program.”
Providing housing is a requirement of the program.
“Time is of the essence,” farm manager Patrick Kriksceonaitis wrote to the mayor last month. He hopes to see the structure completed by June 15, in time to get necessary permits and have workers arrive by August. A 65-day waiting period is involved.
“This is later than usual but attainable,” Kriksceonaitis wrote. “The farm relies on ... these skilled workers to operate the farm during its growing and harvest season.”
Their skills, he has explained, include knowing which fruits are ready to pick and how to pick them without damage. Local residents are reluctant to take such jobs, he said, which involve long hours without overtime.
The new building would measure 48 feet by 28 feet, including four sleeping areas to accommodate eight people, as well as a central kitchen, adjoining living space, two toilets and a bath/shower. A basement is mentioned as a possibility. The winning bid came from Rene Lamarre Co. of Salem.
The money will come from the farm’s “revolving fund,” an existing account generated by the sale of products from the farm.
“They (the council) have to authorize the expenditure,” City Auditor Michael Gingras said. “But it’s not tax money.”
The farm’s revolving fund currently has a balance of approximately $400,000, according to Gingras.
Earlier this year, the city conceded that the current bunkhouse was inadequate. That came after a ruling to that effect from the state Department of Labor. In 2012, an inspector cited, among other things, concerns about sanitation in the toilet areas, doors that did not close correctly and problems with the grounds surrounding the L-shaped structure, which includes a trailerlike addition.
Currently, the bunkhouse is located behin d the farm’s main building and store. Kriksceonaitis indicates that its replacement will be constructed on farm property.
The involvement of migrant workers to help run the farm goes back more than two decades in Peabody, with as many as six men coming yearly. Some regulars have been in the H-2A visa program the entire time. Some work from April to October, others for as little as three months.