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Migrant farm house could be model for future construction

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Bill Norton

This new building provides migrant housing for 17 farm workers.

June 6, 2006

By Bill Norton*

KINSTON, N.C. (UMNS) — Migrant farm workers began using a house in early June that could become a model for seasonal labor housing across the state of North Carolina.

The structure, designed to promote quality migrant housing in the Tar Heel state, was dedicated May 31 outside Kinston. It was the result of collaboration by Harvey Farms, Mt. Olive Pickle Co., United Methodist-related Duke University and the North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The 2,800-square-foot house, built by and on Harvey Farms, is designed to house 17 workers.

“This is a spiritual example of what can be done,” said John McNairy, president of Harvey Enterprises and an active member of Queen Street United Methodist Church in Kinston. “We hope this effort generates interest in figuring out how we can better house farm workers.”

“We wanted the house to meet or exceed state migrant housing standards. Most importantly, we wanted it to meet the needs of the farm workers that will be living and working here,” said Bill Bryan, president of Mt. Olive Pickle Co. Bryan is an active member of Mt. Olive United Methodist Church.

“It is a tremendous testimony to the fact that United Methodists can be involved in both ends of what it means to be Wesleyan in the sense of personal piety and social holiness,” said Bishop James E. Swanson, leader of the church’s Holston Annual (regional) Conference and board member of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. He said the church took a lot of criticism about being involved in the boycott against Mt. Olive.

“God took that and worked a miracle not only for the company but also for the migrant workers,” he said. “It shows we can have companies that can act in Christian ways.”

In addition, original plans called for the structure to be simple to replicate and cost effective to build. Bryan, in an earlier statement, said all project parameters, except for the last one, were met.

The “economics of agriculture across the state now would prevent replicating the house,” McNairy said. But he added that he hopes visiting farmers will find many ideas that can help address migrant housing needs.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Bill Norton

Four of the five bedrooms are designed for four workers or family members.

“We realize the project cost exceeds what is economically reasonable for most farmers,” Bryan said. “We believe the innovative appearance, materials used and design features offer lessons that are useful and thought-provoking.”

“We all started out trying to do the right thing (about farm worker housing), and we ended up doing the right thing,” said John Burness, Duke’s senior vice president for governmental affairs and public relations. “You cannot ask for much more than that.”

“I know what we do today makes God smile,” said Charles M. Smith, director of connectional ministries for the North Carolina Conference. “I hope this building does in fact become a living powerful symbol of what can happen when people of good will dream dreams and have visions and then put money and muscle behind that to achieve this kind of happy and good result.”

The driving force

The concept for the migrant house came out of discussions of a work group formed by Duke and Mt. Olive to address issues facing migrant farm workers in North Carolina. Duke and Mt. Olive began working together in 2002. Late in 2003, the conference entered the discussions and Harvey Farms agreed to participate in 2005.

Construction began last January and was completed in May. Migrant workers began living in the house in early June, just before the growing season.

Bryan and Mt. Olive were praised for being the driving force that brought the project to completion.

“This could not have been done without Bill Bryan and Mt. Olive Pickle Co.,” McNairy said. “They were instrumental in making this happen.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Bill Norton

The kitchen is designed so multiple meals can be prepared at the same time.

“It is nice, very nice,” said Leticia Zavala, of the Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which has an office in Dudley.

For five years, FLOC had boycotted Mt. Olive to get the company and farmers to agree to collective bargaining. Bryan’s own denomination joined the boycott, along with the National Council of Churches and others.

An agreement settling the boycott was reached in 2004, when the North Carolina Growers Association and its farmer members negotiated a labor contract with FLOC. In a separate agreement with the union, Mt. Olive agreed to increase payments for cucumbers in North Carolina and Ohio by 2.25 percent annually for three years, to provide a 3 percent yearly supplement to growers providing workers’ compensation insurance, and to expand its code of conduct for state suppliers and growers.

Model migrant house

Cost figures were not announced during the dedication, but statements made at the project’s start placed the estimated cost at about $300,000. Mt. Olive, Duke and the Duke Endowment on behalf of the North Carolina Conference contributed a total of $130,000. Harvey Farms provided the land and the balance of the construction cost.

The structure has block walls and a metal roof. It has five bedrooms, four of which will sleep four people. Each bedroom has a smoke detector and a door to the interior and outside of the house. Two bathrooms provide one toilet facility for every three people and showers for four. The laundry room has two washer hookups.

The kitchen has two ranges, two sinks and counter space divided by a refrigerator/freezer. The arrangement will permit two meals to be prepared at the same time. The dining room can seat 17 people. The structure is handicapped accessible throughout. Exterior and interior windows open easily for good air flow, which is enhanced by mechanical ceiling fans.

Covered porches are created by the roof’s overhang. In addition, the house has telephone service, and a gas furnace will provide heat during cold days. There is a soccer/recreation area for workers on the housing site.

“Very few processors are willing to get their hands this deep into the process of migrant housing. I commend Mt. Olive Pickle,” Zavala said during the dedication.

Said Smith: “I am grateful to Mt. Olive Pickle Co. and Bill Bryan for the good attitude they maintained throughout some difficult times.”

*Norton is director of communications and editor of the North Carolina Conference Christian Advocate.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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