Each year, in the sweltering heat of July, hundreds of migrant workers and their families come to harvest the sweet cherries in the orchards that dot the shores of Montana’s Flathead Lake.  A short drive off the highway along the lake’s east shore will bring many of them to a warehouse, where a multi-agency group provides services for the workers.  Inside the warehouse, Rural Employment Opportunities (REO) sets up a mini food bank providing food boxes for the workers and their families. Eligible workers may also qualify for gas cards.  Outside, under an array of awnings, people from the Migrant Education Program, Job Service, Montana Legal Services, and Ag Worker Health and Services provide information and services.  One special awning covers tables piled with long-sleeved shirts along with brimmed caps and hats donated by Montanans during AFOP’s Long Sleeved Shirt Drive!


Prunuske_REO workers filling food boxes
Employees with Rural Employment Opportunities, Inc. (REO) fill food boxes for farmworkers


Central to all these efforts is the health and safety of the workers and their children.  A variety of pesticides are used to protect the cherry crop from fruit flies, cherry maggots, and fungal diseases.  Though few pesticides are used just prior the harvest, residues from some extremely powerful pesticides (bifenthinazinphos, carbaryl) may remain.  Additionally, though the cherry trees provide some shade, the humid 90° temperatures can be debilitating.

Coordinating with the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers, REO provides training on the Worker Protection Standard (WPS), Heat Safety, and Good Agricultural Practices (GAP).  Workers are required to complete these trainings in order to work in the orchards. Scheduling trainings for over a hundred workers in the basement of a community center over the course of a week is a challenging juggling act, but the REO staff and the growers work together to make it happen.


cherryAnn Prunuske has worked as a community organizer for much of her life.  She also worked for a local nursery for 17 years, becoming a licensed pesticide applicator so she could train the nursery’s other employees on pesticide safety.  Now in her fifth year working for Rural Employment Opportunities (REO), Ann coordinates the organization’s Health and Safety Program, continues to learn about pesticides, and wishes she had studied Spanish in college.