Over the last 33 years, Bartlett’s Farm has been host to hundreds and hundreds of international student workers from all over the world. Visa programs have changed from time to time over the years but the current programs that we use (J-1Trainee and J-1 Summer Work & Travel) have been in place for nearly 50 years. The Summer Work Travel Program, a Department of State regulated J-1 visa cultural exchange program, has helped bring international college students to the United States to learn about American culture and meet real Americans — at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer.
People often ask how we find our workers and the answer is complex. We post job openings in local and online classifieds, at several of the major agricultural universities like UMASS, Cornell and Penn State and at culinary schools. Word of mouth is also responsible for a large portion of applicants.
In addition to these traditional methods, we post jobs with a few agencies that find international students and help them with applications and paperwork. The agencies send students’ information to us, we select them based on their interests and skills, and they are interviewed via Skype by our HR director and the appropriate department manager. After they are selected, the agency processes their paperwork (including visa applications) and handles their insurance while they are here. Host employers are fully vetted by the agency, and have to be approved each year to continue to host international students. There are unscrupulous employers out there, and the agencies are there to protect the students from ending up in bad situations. We currently have 48 people in the ‘J’ visa program; 20 as J-1T (Agricultural trainees,) and 28 in SWT (Summer Work Travel.) With 127 people on staff at the peak of the season, J-1 workers make up 38% of our work force!
Eleven countries are represented by our trainees this year…Brazil, Paraguay, France, Zimbabwe, Argentina, South Africa, Indonesia, Columbia, Jamaica, Ecuador, and Honduras. And the SWT workers are from England, Ireland, Scotland, Moldova, Lithuania, Jamaica, Russia, Serbia and Italy. Timing is important, as the J-1 Trainees can stay in the US for 6-12 months, while SWT workers can only be here for up to 4 months. Both are allowed to travel for up to a month after their work visa expires. Some choose to get driver’s licenses while they are in the US and go exploring the US by car when they are finished at the farm.
SWT students are paid the same as American workers and this is enforced by the State Dept. The rules for Trainees are a little different, but we pay above minimum wage. Technically, we could pay Agricultural wages which are a lot lower. There is a persistent myth out there that the Summer Work Travel program takes away American jobs. But according to Americans For Cultural Exchange, a 2017 analysis shows that the majority of SWT students are placed in areas with already high American employment rates. The website goes on to say that SWT students do not displace American workers, but rather supplement this American workforce, helping host businesses meet seasonal workforce needs, especially during the shoulder seasons (before Memorial Day and after Labor Day). The fact is that the SWT program helps create and sustain American jobs.
The myth persists that our tax dollars are somehow used – but according to the State Department, the fact is that no US Taxpayer dollars are used to pay for this program.
Our J-1 Agricultural Trainees work in the fields and greenhouses, planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting. Because the Summer Work Travel program is specifically for cultural exchange, those students are not permitted to work in agriculture. When you shop at the market, you will see these students working in customer service and in kitchen production. For a little more information from CAEP (Communicating for Agriculture Exchange Programs) watch this video they created about us as hosts.
As part of our end of the bargain we offer all our interns and students opportunities to experience US culture. Staff parties, birthday celebrations, outings with Maria Mitchell Association and the Nantucket Historical Association are all part of the equation, plus they all live and work with people from all over the world. We truly enjoy our multi-cultural environment and what our international students bring to the Farm as well, so we all benefit from the cultural exchange of ideas and experience.
Right now, the J-1 visa program is in danger of being dismantled, despite wide bipartisan support. If this happens, it will become very difficult to find that 38% of our work force. Bartlett’s has joined Americans for Cultural Exchange as a sign of support because this visa program is essential to the success of our farm.
Without our J-1 visa employees, we would not have enough people to grow and harvest our tomatoes. Or that corn. Or any of the vegetables we grow. And the checkout lines would be even longer than they are now. Take a look at the website mentioned above and if you agree that this program is essential, please take action by joining the group and/or contacting your representative to voice your support for the program.