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Grower finds reliable labor in crew with disabilities
By WHITNEY PIPKIN
PAGE COUNTY, Va. (June 3, 2014) — David Sours said he fired five farmworkers last season for not showing up, showing up late or “just not wanting to work.”
Just one worker returned from last year ready to contribute to the five-acre vegetable farm, which left Sours in a pickle.
“I was at a loss for workers,” he said.
Sours posted on Facebook that Public House Produce was looking for reliable farm laborers, a request he thought wouldn’t be hard to fill in Page County, Va., which posted a nearly 13-percent unemployment rate at the beginning of the year.
He didn’t expect to find just the kind of labor he was looking for — folks who put in hard work with a good attitude — from a crew comprised of adults with disabilities who otherwise also have a hard time finding employment.
Barbie Sharp is program director at Shen-Paco Industries, Inc., a nonprofit agency that helps find work for adults with disabilities in Shenandoah and Page counties.
Her company had recently lost a 14-year contract that provided work for 60 of their 200 workers.
Sharp was scrambling to find replacement work for them when she saw the Facebook post from Sours.
The Shen-Paco crews had experience with assembling equipment in a warehouse but had never worked in agriculture, even though farming is the No. 1 industry in Page County by value. Sharp thought Sours might be open to the idea, and she “wanted anything we could get for our guys.”
Sours was excited about the prospect and invited a small crew of workers from the program to give farm work a try in early April. Shen-Paco often arranges such “situational assessments,” which allow organizers to see if the job is the right fit for the workers and the employer.
That first day, the crew helped him plant 6,000 onions and 1,000 bibs of lettuce. They provided the extra hands Sours needed to get the season kicked off.
But, more than that, “at the end of the day, they only wanted a thank you,” said Sours, who pays the workers minimum wage. “Since 2008, I’ve never had somebody say at the end of the day, ‘Can we come back tomorrow?’”
It didn’t take long for Sours to become committed to the idea of working with this crew all summer.
The physical nature of the work hasn’t been the right fit for all of Shen-Paco’s clients. Sours admits one of the workers wasn’t very quick at planting, but he gave it his best effort each day.
“I was like, ‘You know? I don’t care.’ If he wants to come and work, I don’t care if he plants six plants,” said Sours, who’s overall been very impressed with the crew.
Others are overly thorough with some tasks — picking up every piece of stray black compost instead of just the big ones — which makes Sours wonder how they’ll fare at the nuanced process of deciding which tomatoes are ready for harvest later in the year.
But some, like Kenny Woodward, 23, have found farming to be their niche.
On an 80-degree afternoon in May, Woodward made his way down the rows unfazed by the heat, using all his force to drive stakes into the ground for tomato plants.
He worked in a factory before this job, but says he prefers being outside and being “tired at the end of the day.” Woodward said there’s nothing he doesn’t like about this job.
“We just keep on going until we get done, then move on to something else,” he said, explaining a day’s work.
K.K. Foster, 22, said she never thought about farming as a possible vocation before this opportunity arose.
She said she loves the sun and vegetables and is looking forward to harvest season (even though Sours has warned them that harvesting is much harder than planting).
“It’s hard work but I enjoy the outdoors more than the factory. But I like that, too,” said Foster, who lives up the road from the farm.
Sharp said Shen-Paco hadn’t considered farming as a good fit for its population of workers — until now. Sours tells her each week how many workers he’ll need the following week and for how many hours, and she’s happy to oblige.
“With these guys, they feel productive. They get up every morning wanting to go to work. They don’t complain,” Sharp said. “We found something that fits their interests.”