by Linda Halley | We bought the plane tickets last night. Now it is real. The Zunigas are leaving by the end of the month, which means our seasonal crew will be reduced by more than half. Even though the fall has been terribly wet and many of our end-of-season tasks have been delayed, the Zunigas must leave. Their visa provides no wiggle-room. If they want to return next year they must leave before the visa expires on November first.
For the better part of my farming career, I have had the good fortune to work with Ezequiel and Benjamin Zuniga. In the early years, as co-owner of an organic vegetable farm in Viroqua, I was having a hard time finding reliable, seasonal help. Work days on a farm are long and the conditions can be challenging. Short of a deluge and lightning, work tends to go on, no matter the weather. Hot days, frigid days, mosquito-y days, muddy days; it seems there’s always something that can, and must, be done.
My farm had a good reputation for being well-run and successful, so we attracted many enthusiastic and idealistic young people. Most of them left in short order. Those who lasted the season and liked the work found it hard to juggle life with four months off in the middle of the winter. Even though we paid higher wages than other farmers, we were caught in a cycle of searching for good employees and training them to our exacting standards.
Things turned around when we began working with the federal H2A visa program in the 1990’s. The Zunigas and others began to come to work seasonally at my farm. Working with the program provided my farm business with a stable, trained, skilled team who return legally, year after year. But, best of all, it has given the Zunigas a fair and reliable income and the comfort of knowing that they will return home to their family when the contract period is over. I credit much of my farm’s success to the great employees who came to work through the visa program.
I left Wisconsin in 2006 to manage farms in California and Minnesota, but kept in touch with the Zunigas. We really enjoyed working together and more than once we contemplated doing so again. It wasn’t until Gwenyn Hill that it made sense. I knew that their skills and experience would be a big advantage in a start-up year.
Video: The Zunigas and Sandy plant trees in the apple orchard at the beginning of the year.
As Gwenyn Hill grows and changes we hope to attract young people who want to learn about organics and eventually make farming their career. The Zunigas can be part of providing a core team, modeling and training field and pack shed skills any future farmer may need.
Laurel, Sandy, Sarah and I will soon be missing their hard work and sunny attitude, but we are glad we can count on them again in the spring, helping us maintain the momentum of a successful 2018. So, “hasta la vista”, or “goodbye until we see you again”.
Linda Halley is General Manager of Gwenyn Hill Farm and a life-long organic farmer and educator.