Dobbins says foreign workers increasingly critical to Lyndonville farm and apple packing business

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 4 May 2023 at 11:20 am

Company seeks to build 30-unit labor housing on Route 63

LYNDONVILLE – A Lyndonville farm and packing operation that has expanded in recent years said foreign workers are critical to their success.

H.H. Dobbins has put in a new pack line and added a warehouse for storing apples. The company now ships apples 1.1 million bushels year-round or 44 million pounds for 55 apple farms.

While Dobbins has many reliable and hard-working staff from the local community, during its peak harvest and packing season about half of the 130 workers come to work in Lyndonville from Jamaica, Mexico and Honduras.

Dobbins is looking to build a new 30-unit farm labor building on Route 63, north of the village, and the project has critics in the community. Some town officials and residents have urged Dobbins to put the building on land it owns on the less-prominent Alps Road. Dobbins wants to use that land for an orchard, with either peaches or popular apple varieties.

Dobbins has machines for automated bagging, and other equipment that quickly scans apples for defects, whether scabs or too much water coring inside. Even with the push towards automation, Dobbins still needs 90 workers in the packing house operation.

There will be a public hearing at 7 p.m. today about the farm labor housing project. It will be held in the school auditorium at 25 Housel Ave. and will give residents a chance to comment on an area variance, special use permit and site plan for the 104-by-40 foot building. Dobbins is seeking a 50-foot sideyard setback variance. Dobbins said that would allow the company to put the building closer to a side of the property where there isn’t a neighboring resident.

The new project will offer the workers more comfort after their shifts, have more showers, and allow Dobbins to not rent a house in Medina for workers, and also shift away from two older farmhouses in the Lyndonville community.

“We want our guys to be able to relax and feel respected,” said Brett Baker, executive vice president and sales manager for Dobbins and its sales company, United Apple.

The building would have six bedrooms with five men to a room. They would be offered cable TV, the internet, air-conditioning in the summer, eight showers, eight sinks, and laundry facilities. Dobbins would set up reliable transportation for them to go shopping, go to the bank and tend to other errands, Baker said.

The new worker housing would primarily be for Jamaican and Mexican workers that work in the orchards through the federal H2A program that brings in legal foreign workers for agriculture. Dobbins hires 40 workers through that program.

The business also needed help with its packing facility. It turned to the federal H2B program to have 12 Honduran workers on the packing lines and sanitation crew for the first time from October 2021 to May 2022. Those employees fit in well with their American co-workers and proved very dependable. Dobbins hired 20 Hondurans since last October through later this month. Many returned from the initial group of 12.

The H2B program is available for temporary positions that aren’t directly on a farm. The U.S. has doubled number eligible the program from 66,000 cap in the federal fiscal year. The workers are screened through the Department of Homeland Security.

The government boosted the cap to help businesses have reliable workers in landscaping and groundskeeping, forest and conservation, amusement and recreation attendants, maids and housekeeping cleaners, construction, cooks and other industries.

The Honduran workers at Dobbins have impressed the leaders of the company and the American co-workers who are often alongside them in their shifts.

These workers including the five men from Honduras are part of the sanitation team at Dobbins. They include from left Andi, Johan, Julie Pries, David, Beth Miller, Oscar and Davey.

Beth Miller is the sanitation supervisor who works with five Honduran men after the packing lines closed down around 4 p.m. The sanitation team works to about midnight cleaning the machines and equipment, sweeping the floors, emptying tanks and getting the place ready for the next day.

Miller said the workers showed an immediate commitment to the job in October 2021 when they first started at Dobbins. They men have stayed positive, even during the harsh winter weather.

“I want to thank Dobbins for looking into this program,” she said. “These guys are all very nice men. They’re all smiles.”

They are learning English through a program run by the World Life Institute in Waterport. When they make it back to Honduras, they send messages through Facebook to let their American co-workers they are home safe.

Davey, 21, is finished his second seven-month tenure at Dobbins. Davey said the jobs are hard to come by in Honduras and they don’t pay much. Many positions are $6 a day and there are numerous applicants for those jobs. He worked a job in Honduras that was high-paying by that country’s standards. It was $20 a day. But he had to carry 130-pound batteries up a narrow mountainous path.

Davey has good English through the WLI program in Waterport. He said he hopes someday he could stay permanently in the United States and have more family members join him.

He said he is grateful for the chance to work at Dobbins.

“I like everything I do here,” he said. “I’m getting more experience.”

Julie Pries is a local woman who works on the sanitation crew with the men from Honduras. They have impressed her with their work ethic, and their kindness towards each other and the other co-workers.

“It’s been a really nice experience,” she said on Tuesday at the start of her shift. “They’re all very nice men.”

Miller, the sanitation supervisor, took the men out bowling Saturday in Medina. Some of them have been to Niagara Falls. Often, when they aren’t working, they stay in a labor house and play cards.

Dobbins would like for the new housing to be available for the Honduran workers when the H2A workers aren’t needed.

Those 60 workers through H2A and H2B are essential to the overall operation which has 130 employees at peak, Baker said.

Without the Honduran employees, Dobbins would likely have to scale back the winter and early spring packing schedule by a third, said Dave D’Anniballe, financial controller for the company.

D’Anniballe said the workers spend lots of their money with local businesses, often going to the Dollar General, Hojack Ice Cream Shack and Crosby’s.

“They have come from nothing and they love it here,” he said. “They generate a lot of income for the local economy.”

Dobbins has been in business for more than a century, going back to 1905. It recently expanded a packing line and warehouse in Lyndonville.