Editorial: It’s one bungalow for farm workers, but it’s a start

Back when thousands of acres on the North Fork were devoted to potatoes and duck farms lined nearly every creek, farm worker housing was a regional and national disgrace. Conditions in labor camps that housed Southern-born Black men and women were so horrible that CBS’s Edward R. Murrow filmed a portion of his “Harvest of Shame” documentary at a camp in Cutchogue in 1960.

Fires that broke out at some of these camps on the North Fork claimed the lives of men, women and even children, as detailed in Mark Torres’ book, “Dust for Blood – Long Island Migrant Labor Camps.” Four men from Arkansas died at a Cutchogue camp in Cutchogue in 1961. The fire was attributed to a kerosene stove the workers brought in because they couldn’t afford the exorbitant fees for food the camp provided. 

All those camps are now long gone, thankfully, and today’s farm workers are in large part immigrants from Central America. They fill the farm jobs, landscaping crews, and many other functions across the North Fork. It’s no stretch to say they are the heart of many local industries. They somehow manage to find places to live, often in overcrowded houses.

Which brings us to the bungalow being renovated at Wickham Fruit Farm in Cutchogue specifically for six workers who will arrive next week from Guatemala, each with an agriculture visa approved by the federal government. The visas allow the workers to stay for the growing and harvesting seasons and then return to their homes in Central America.

A provision of the H-2A agricultural program, as it’s called, also requires the employer to provide safe and clean housing on-site. That was Tom Wickham’s motivation for the remodel. 

A tour of the bungalow shows it is first-class: two new bathrooms, one handicapped accessible, new bedrooms and kitchen, air conditioning and heating, a fire suppression system in the ceiling, a modern septic system and a deck on the south side of the bungalow that overlooks Wickham Creek. The bungalow is turning the North Fork’s troubled farm worker history on its head.

North Fork hamlets and Greenport Village have for months been involved in discussion on how to provide adequate housing for those who work in restaurants and small businesses, clean rooms in hotels, mow lawns and do a long list of other jobs. We heard about housing problems at our recent “Future of Greenport” forum at the Legion Hall.

As both Southold Supervisor Al Krupski and Long Island Farm Bureau spokesman Rob Carpenter said in interviews, what is happening on the Wickham farm is very good — but it is not a blueprint for solving the housing problem regionally for the many workers our economy needs.

Why? One, it’s far too expensive and, two, it addresses the needs of only a small group working on a particular farm. Small businesses cannot afford housing for their employees, and if large employers such as Peconic Landing and Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital want to do this, they will find that the costs far exceed what is feasible — even on a small scale.

We applaud the handsome bungalow the workers will find at Wickham’s when they arrive next week. Each day, they will work on the farm, bringing baskets of fruit to the stand on Main Road. At the end of each day, they will have a very good home to return to.

It’s a small answer to a very large problem. But it’s an answer.