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Brewster returns to growing and packing fruit
after upheaval from layoffs at nearby orchard

The city of Brewster has returned to normal since facing an upheaval after Gebbers Farms, the Okanogan’s largest orchard and packing warehouse, laid off about 550 workers in late December.  

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had notified the farm that it would audit their employees’ documents and it would be fined $10,000 for any employee with improper documents.

Brewster Food Bank
Volunteers sign up food bank recipients

Families, schools, merchants, churches and the food bank had to adjust.

Brewster, a community of about 2,190, was founded in 1910 at the confluence of the Columbia and Okanogan rivers.  The first settlers were cattle and sheep ranchers, followed by miners and loggers.  With dams and irrigation, the fruit industry developed.

One orchardist described ICE’s action.

“Instead of doing a raid in the fields, ICE went after employers.  Gebbers was one of five in Washington and 300 across the country that were challenged,” said a Brewster orchardist who runs a small orchard with her husband.  “ICE looked at their books and documents and gave the names of those who had improper documents.  It gave Gebbers a month to lay them off.

“It made a big splash, but things have not changed,” she said. 

The orchardist, who attends St. James Episcopal Church, explained the dilemma orchardists face in hiring workers:  “We are limited in what we can ask applicants.  We can’t ask them if their documents are fake.  If they appear good, we hire them.

“We can call Social Security to verify their social security numbers, but it’s hard to reach anyone on the phone,” she said.

With 75 percent of the students in school being of Mexican heritage and with many Mexican merchants, she noted, “when they are in trouble, we are in trouble.”

Farming there more than 50 years, the orchardist and her husband began when Brewster was a white, rural community with few Mexicans.  At first, many who worked on the farms were transients.  Then young college people came to live off the land.  During hard times, senior citizens came and lived in trailers.  During the Boeing strike, Boeing workers came.

Mexicans have been steady, good workers, coming to support their families in Mexico,” she said.  “In 1985, many gained legal status through an amnesty and settled, but many of those are now older.  Orchard work is skilled labor, requiring long hours of hard work, so we pay them well.”

Use of Brewster’s food bank more than doubled during orchard layoffs

Brewster’s food bank, housed at St. James Episcopal Church, went from feeding about 100 families a week to 250 families by February, said Mike Lundstrom, the food bank’s director and a member of St. James.

Two days after Gebbers Farms laid off 550 employees, Mike saw Catholic Bishop William Skylstad in town.

Soon the food bank received funding from Sacred Heart Parish in Pullman and food donations from other Catholic parishes in response to the bishop’s Lenten appeal.

Despite the increased demand on the food bank, its 12 volunteers met the need during regular hours from 9 to 10:30 a.m., Thursdays, Mike said.  Family representatives came and picked up one bag of food for each four members.

“We served 3,500 individuals in February,” said Mike, an artist, photographer and musician who moved to Brewster 15 years ago from Ontario, Ore., when his wife, a certified nurse-midwife, came to work at the migrant clinic.  She later started the Main Street Health Associates there.

The food bank, supplied by Northwest Harvest in Seattle, Department of Agriculture commodities and Federal Emergency Management Authority funds, is more than 40 years old. Private donations also provide support. 

A high school current world problems teacher also has students do odd jobs and give the money to the food bank. They also do a community food drive.

“Recently, the food bank had seen increases in demand when the economy tanked and fuel prices rose,” Mike said.  “We ran out of money last summer.”

During the layoffs, Mike said food bank volunteers noticed a new demographic trend.  They discovered that instead of there being two adults and three children per household, there were often four adults and six children per household, as families shared housing to help each other.

Most in the Latino community stayed in town because jobs were unavailable elsewhere.  Practically none of the laid-off workers went back to Mexico.  People from other areas of the country with intensive agriculture experience heard about the layoffs and came to town to apply for those  jobs,” he said.  “Of course we immediately saw them at the food bank because they had been unemployed even before they made the move to Brewster.”

Mike said that some of those people filled jobs and some of those who had been laid off updated their IDs so they were acceptable and could be rehired. 

Counter to the concern often repeated in media that Mexican workers are “taking our jobs,” he said the orchardist reported that no white members of the community, which has 10 percent unemployment, applied for the jobs.

Mike has empathy for young people who crossed the border with parents when they were babies or toddlers and lack legal status.  One teen picked up for a traffic violation was deported to Mexico.  He did not know the language or know anyone there.  He has since returned to his family.

Mike said the community’s experience is an example of why the United States needs a guest worker bill.

“It has to happen or we—white middle-class Americans—will not be eating,” he said.

For information, call 455-4960.