Chatting with the 2017 Apple Grower of the YearSM, Rod Farrow, for this month’s cover story, I was reminded for the umpteenth time just how unusual the boss/employee relationship is in our industry.
Hearing Farrow talk about his employees, even over the phone 2,687 miles away, I swear I could detect his chest swelling with pride.
It was recognizing what a difference his Hispanic employees could make if they streamlined communications — realizing that to really improve they would need to use the employees’ native tongue — that changed the trajectory of Lamont Fruit Farm’s success.
Farrow said it sounds obvious, but you have to keep in mind that as an individual, you can’t pick many apples.
“We’re exclusively H2-A,” he said. “Having a crew of talented, motivated people is the key to making this work. You can have all the ideas in the world, but you need the boots on the ground.”
In 1999 they divided up the farm into five divisions, each with a Hispanic supervisor. Rod said he understands that’s not an uncommon strategy in Washington, but for his farm in New York, it was a sea change.
It was time to start recognizing that Anglos and Hispanics are culturally very different. He could offend his Hispanic employees, or at the least make them extremely uncomfortable, without really knowing why. They needed supervisors who were in tune with them.
As soon as he put his top workers in the role of supervisor, along with providing intensive training, he got a lot more buy-in to pick incredible fruit. He offered an example: A few years ago they got hammered with hail on pretty much all their blocks, but still had the highest average packout at their packing shed.
“You can’t do that without education, and even more important, buy-in. You have to sort all the apples you pick for the next 10 weeks,” he said. “We challenged them to find the best way to do that, and they made it work. It was incredible.”
Farrow’s obviously proud of his workers, what they’ve been able to do for him, and for what he’s been able to do for them.
He readily concedes he’s invested plenty in lots of people who left him, but he has no regrets about it at all. It benefits us all to help out people who are working like crazy to get ahead.
That’s the other aspect of the labor situation a lot of Americans don’t understand: Mexicans can change their lives picking apples in America. Of course, virtually every segment of our society — except growers — don’t want to see guest workers.
“I know we’re not looked upon favorably for that,” he says, “but it’s life-changing for them.”
He’s got guys who’ve been coming back each summer for nearly 20 years from a small town called Llera, Mexico, to pick apples.
The first couple years they would use the money to build houses in their hometown. After that, they’d get a pickup truck. That would allow them to be more productive in their local orange groves to the point that many of them have bought their own groves.
There’s no practical way they could make enough money in Mexico to do all that. They needed a helping hand, and it was by no means a handout. Their hard work made it a win/win.
“I’m really proud of that,” Farrow says.