Today, March 5th, is Employee Appreciation Day and wow, we are grateful for the ones we have! We have loved working with and getting to know the year-round staff and although we haven't even had a chance to work with most of the harvest crew yet, we've heard glorious things!
None of Bow Hill's business would be possible without these dedicated folks who, in only eight weeks' time, try to get every last ripe berry off the plants and cultivate the growth of the unripe ones.
The top photo is some of 2019's harvest crew celebrating their hard work and end-of-season bonuses in our Mink House. If you found this article via social, below is the more detailed account of what makes the Skagit Valley unique in the world of migrant farm labor and Bow Hill unique in our practices in terms of fair wages.
And so it begins...
Pablo Silva, our field manager and owner of Silva Family Farms, has been with Bow Hill since the beginning. He, however, has been in berries since he was 14 years old. Bow Hill wouldn’t be where it is without him, but also, his family and friends. Growing up in an agricultural community, most of his friends and his wife, Maura, come from that same background. Each year, Pablo chooses who we hire to work in the field. Many of our field crew come from conventional farming backgrounds but wanted to get out of that literal toxic environment and switch to organic as a safer and healthier alternative.
The beauty of living and farming in the Skagit Valley is that there are crops here all year long. The harvest crew are all local residents and don’t have to migrate to find farm work. Depending on the predicted crop that year, Bow Hill will bring on anywhere from 8 to 20 people for the harvest crew. Those people can put down roots, buy homes and land, build community, start their own farms, and send their kids to the same school year-after-year. Due to our valley’s rich agriculture and an ever-rotating cast of characters growing in the fields, our pickers are employed year-round — whether it's in potato processing or harvesting fruit that comes before or after ours.
Some reasons specific to Bow Hill that our crew comes back year after year, we can accredit to three main things:
- Self-management of the fields
- Multiple roles on the farm
- Fair pay and a bonus at the end of the season
Let’s dig deeper into those three categories.
The pickers manage the field. They take ownership of the field as much as we will. Harley and Susan started doing this after the first year. When they began, Harley would say, “let’s pick this row, let’s pick that row.” Then they soon realized that it was the harvest crew who are the ones out in the field every day, hour after hour, with their hands on the plants, so naturally, they should be the ones to manage the picking locations, flow, and schedule. Since that obvious ah-ha moment, Bow Hill just says how much we need picked that day, and then the harvest crew will choose which rows that amount comes from. The crew enjoys coming back each year, so they’re invested in the survival of the plants. They maximize the yield by choosing which rows to pick and which rows to let rest. As professionals, they’re highly skilled at managing the flow and stages of the fruit.
That leads us to their multiple roles on the farm. There is a lot of work to do to prepare the fields before picking even begins. Pruning in the winter once the leaves drop, weeding in the spring, and trellising right as the fruit sets; Bow Hill hires some of the summer field crew to do these tasks. There is an edible weed, purslane, that the field crew will harvest and send off to restaurants wanting Certified Organic purslane; a succulent nutritious green and folk remedy. Then it’s blueberries, blueberries, blueberries for 8-weeks. It's like an 8-week blueberry party! After the berry picking is over, there will be mulching, pruning, and, you guessed it, weeding to be done.
Since this is the Pacific Northwest, after all, our summers are not without rain. Many farms have separate picking and packing crews but here we have only one. Since blueberries split if picked wet, on days during harvest when the sun is not shining (which, surprisingly isn’t many) or after a strong night rain, there's still a lot of work for our harvest crew, if they want it. Whether that’s packing the berries into bags, weeding, or washing totes, we keep them busy. It's an important part of the sustainable environment we want to extend to our dedicated harvest crew.
Speaking of the crews’ happiness, let’s get into fair pay. Earlier, we mentioned all the crops that grow here in the Skagit. Our biggest competition for our crew is cultivated blackberry farms and late-season blueberries. The blackberries come on in a fury right as our blueberries are dwindling, when there are about two weeks left. We used to lose a large part of our crew to blackberry farms, and then Harley and Susan thought, “what if we have an incentive to stay through the whole season?” Hence, a bonus created for those who commit and follow-through as Bow Hill’s crew for our entire 8-week season. It’s worked out well, for all the money they potentially miss out on by staying with us, they’re rewarded with a bonus based on the entire amount they picked that season. With spring on it's way and the green-tip appearing in the fields, we are looking forward to harvest and continuing to support the sustainability of the Skagit community.
We’re so grateful to our harvest crews of the past and those of the future. Thanks, Pablo, Maura, and all of your amazing and dedicated friends and family. As for our year-round staff, we're ever grateful for your hard work selling, packing, shipping, producing, all the products that make Bow Hill the success it is.
For more on this, listen to the podcast Bow Hill is featured on here. This subject is covered in depth starting around minute 25:30.