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East Hartford, CT 06118

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The Hartford Courant

From Seed to Shelf Logo

Thursday, June 10, 1999

Finding Farmhands A Chore In Tight Labor Market

Jim Futtner Loading Fertilizer

On Tuesday, a hot, dry day, Jim Futtner prepares his field in South Windsor by spreading fertilizer. Futtner divides his time between a tract in South Windsor, where he lives, an 15 acres that he rents in East Hartford along Silver Lane.

Cultivating A Crew To Sweat With You

Courant Consumer Affairs Writer

The unusually hot, 90-degree spring weather has taken its toll on farmer Jim Futtner. He's exhausted, his ripped white shirt and green pants are rumpled and his hair is matted with sweat. The sun has turned his skin a deep brownish-red usually not seen on New Englanders until mid-July.

Futtner has spent the past few days working with his newly planted crops, dividing his time between a tract of land in South Windsor, where he lives, and 15 acres that he rents in East Hartford along Silver Lane. Caring for the new plants is hard, tedious work - most of which can only be done by hand.

In the early morning of this June day, Jim and two of his workers are building string fences around the tomatoes to ensure that they grow upright. It is slow work. They stick stakes into the ground every few feet, then tie the strings around the poles, trapping the plants in between.

Planting Pepper Plants in the Fields

With his wife, Honora, at the wheel of the tractor, Jim Futtner checks to be sure that pepper seedlings are setting properly on a windy day in late May. Aboard the setter, Pat and Tom Miller help the Futtners complete the job.

When they were staking the tomatoes, they discovered that Colorado beetles had invaded the crop. The beetles are a scourge. The orange eggs they would lay all over the leaves would kill the plants if the bugs aren't removed.

The workers start picking the beetles off the plants one by one because Jim usually doesn't spray insecticides this early in the year. The plants are still so small that most of the chemicals would end up wasted on the ground.

Besides, Jim doesn't like to spray.

There are all sorts of rules and regulations. Each year, farmers must provide the state Department of Environmental Protection with records of the chemicals they've used, and how much. The state also checks soil samples several times a year to make sure that farmers are complying with regulations.

And pesticides are controversial.

This winter, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, found that as little as a single serving of some popular fruits and vegetables may include enough harmful Chemicals to exceed government health standards.

Farmers say they are caught in the middle. And what environmental advocates don't realize, they say, is that fanners and their families - in Connecticut, 95 percent of the farms are run by families - are also eating the food. So they have a personal stake in what chemicals are put onto crops. They want to cut down on the use of chemicals, Jim says.

In the past, farmers sprayed weekly. Now, they spray only when necessary. Each season, Jim pays a specialist $1,000 to advise him on chemical-free ways to kill weeds and insects. He found the specialist through a University of Connecticut program that helps farmers reduce the use of chemicals.

"We break even on the costs, but the benefit is to use less pesticides. Two years ago, we went three weeks without spraying," Jim says.

But pesticide management by hand is laborious. After picking the beetles off the plants one by one, Jim is drained. He heads for shelter from the noon sun in the small brick house across from the East Hartford tract that used to belong to his father, Raymond. There, he meets his wife, Honora, for lunch in the cool, light green kitchen. Honora has spent the morning at the Futtner farmstand and greenhouses adjacent to the house, selling garden and potting plants. But the respite is short.

Before Jim has recovered from the morning's work, a new crew has arrived, and he has to go out to meet them. Honora has to return to the greenhouse to supervise that staff.

Four, teenage boys are waiting for Jim to explain their afternoon tasks. He tells one group to start hoeing weeds surrounding his cabbage plants. As the two teens start to hoe the crusty, grayish-brown soil, Jim tells the other group to start snapping tiny branches off the tomato plants.

The branches, Jim-says, divert water and nutrients from the flowers. So they crouch down, their feet sinking about one-half inch into the thick soil, and begin. It will take the crew three hours to snap branches from two rows.

It has been so dry that Jim will have to irrigate the land in a few days. He and his crew will have to drag 20-foot sections of irrigation pipe through the fields, a task he hates doing - except for the feeling of the cool, wet soil under his bare feet after the water starts spurting.

Between the 35,000 pounds of fertilizer, the insecticides and labor costs, Jim has already invested $500 in each acre he is farming.

His highest cost?

Labor, he says. And finding reliable help willing to sweat and get dirty is tough for farmers who have to compete for labor with air-conditioned supermarkets and malls.

Jim says he has been lucky. He has been able to hire and retain a sufficient crew each year. Right now, the crew is small - just eight workers. At harvest time, it will swell to more than 20.

But if one misses work, Jim has to change plans.

One recent day, for example, Jim had planned to plant peppers. He needs three workers to operate the machine that sets the plants into the ground. But one worker stayed home that day, so the crew prepared spraying equipment instead.

When he loses a day of planting, he loses a day of harvesting in the fall That means he loses money. He tries to have everything planted by June 15.

To attract workers, Jim must pay competitive wages. But he acknowledges that $6.50 an hour - one of his highest wages - is not making any of his crew rich.

Many fanners turn to immigrant labor. In Connecticut, 1,000 immigrants - among 20,000 state farm workers - toiled on farms in 1996. The state expects 10 percent to 15 percent more this year.

Farmers also have to be cautious about illegal immigrant labor. Last year, a Vernon-based immigrant labor firm was cited by the U.S. Immigration and Nationalization Service for hiring, housing and transporting 31 illegal immigrants who worked on area farms.

At Futtner's farm, there is a mix of returning workers and new hires. This year, a Vietnamese father and son have joined the crew.

Matt Cotoia, 17, of East Hartford, says he enjoys farm work much more than his previous job - delivering newspapers. Delivering the papers was lonely, he says, although he made the same money in fewer hours.

Although Mends sometimes scoff at him for being a farmhand, he says he feels as if he is part of a family. Jim and Honora, he points out, always remember his birthday. "They are all good kids," Jim says "I try not to yell at them; try to overlook their mistakes. You have to be patient These are not farm kids."

Soon Jim's son, Joe, will complete his sophomore year at South Windsor High School. Then he will join his father full time in the fields. Joe, 15, is the only one of Jim and Honora's children who has expressed an interest in becoming a farmer.

This spring, Joe hurt his foot when a piece of farm equipment fell onto it. He recently got his cast off - just in time to return to the fields.

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