Jamaican farmworker retires to his farm
September 27, 2018
After toiling on a Canadian farm for the last 42 years, Izett Brown is back in Jamaica enjoying a well-earned retirement.
He was one of the longest-serving employees at Cherry Lane Frozen Fruits – owned by HWM Holdings Ltd. – in Vineland which is recognized as Canada’s premier tender fruit region.
The Niagara area farm produces peaches, cherries and pears.
Brown, 74, left last Friday with a lifetime of memories after spending eight months annually on the farm for over four decades.
“I don’t have any family members in Canada, so I consider the people I worked with to be family,” he said. “I am going to miss them as we had a lot of good times together. Also, I love farm work and that is what kept me coming back every year.”
Precipitated by a shortage of apple pickers, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) was established in 1966 to bring Jamaicans to Canada to fill the void.
Of the 264 Jamaican workers in the inaugural year, eight of them went to Cherry Lane which has been providing pitted tart cherries, tart cherry juice concentrate and other fruit products to consumers since 1907.
Brown arrived in 1976.
“When my local member of parliament at the time put out the call for farmworkers interested in coming to Canada, I jumped at the opportunity,” he recalled.
The first few months in Canada tested Brown’s faith and character.
“The place was so cold that my fingers turned red and I thought it was pepper on them,” he said. “When I asked my fellow employees what was happening, they said it was the cold. I asked myself what I was doing in this weather. After that, I got a nice pair of warm gloves and clothing and I was fine.”
The septuagenarian is thankful for the opportunity to provide for his family.
“When I came here the first year, the hourly wage was $1.75,” he said. “I returned to Jamaica with $30 after buying things for my family and house.”
Jennifer Smith, the president and chief operating officer at Cherry Lane, was just six years old when Brown landed on the family farm.
“I grew up with Izett,” she said. “He’s a great person and worker. We are all about teamwork here and he fitted in perfectly. We don’t have a lot of turnover, so this core group has been with us for many years.”
Because of restructuring due to the minimum wage increase, the farm retained 52 Jamaicans this year which is 15 less than it normally employs.
As the second oldest employee on the farm after 76-year-old Rupert Douglas, Brown is held in high esteem by his colleagues.
“They all respect him very much and every morning, they would approach him saying, ‘Hey Zaka’ (his moniker) and shake his hand,” said Smith who has an undergraduate degree in history. “He is very much liked.”
General manager Michelle Smith (no relation to Jennifer) has been at Cherry Lane for the past 11 years.
“Izett is the first person to make us laugh when we come to work in the morning,” she pointed out. “He’s always happy and singing.”
Except for this year when Brown spent just four months on the farm, his yearly stay extended from March through to November.
“Izett and the other workers would prune the trees before thinning the fruit off them in May,” said Jennifer Smith. “At harvest time, some guys go off to harvest while others go to the factory. After harvest, it’s time to clean up, take out the orchids and get them ready to re-plant the next year for pruning.”
Brown, whose wife died seven years ago, plans to rest for the next few weeks.
“I think I deserve that,” said the father of three children who was among 21 long-serving farmworkers recognized on the 50th anniversary of the program in 2016 for their dedication and commitment. “In November, I will go to New York for about a month and spend some time with a brother and other family members. When I go back to Jamaica, I will work on my farm on my own time.”
At a retirement function last week, John Smith – Jennifer’s father – attended to thank Brown for his sterling contributions.
In 2015, he was awarded the Order of Distinction in the rank of officer by the Jamaican government for providing invaluable opportunities through the SAWP since 1966 as the first farmer to employ Jamaicans.