By T.L. Petersen
Observer Staff Writer
COVE I think this is just a win-win situation for everybody involved. Its good for the pickers, its good for us, its good for the community and its good for Union County.
John Miller leans against his pickup and looks around the area that, when finished, will be a modern, improved temporary housing situation for about 75 migrant cherry pickers this summer and for years to come.
Miller, owner of Miller Orchards off of Hidden Valley Road near Cove, is in a unique situation.
Last September, he says, he was approached by OSU County Extension Agent Darrin Walenta, who let him know that grant funds were available to upgrade migrant labor housing.
In fact, the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services had $1 million to hand out, the so-called Migrant Million.
We hemmed and hawed a bit, Miller says, then, when the deadline was extended for grant proposals, the Millers decided to go for it.
Their main pickers camp, Miller said, had 13 cabins, measuring about 10 feet by 8 feet each, a larger bunkhouse for single men, and a shower building.
Many of the cabins were more than 20 years old, and had started existence as frames for hunting camp-style tents.
When he learned he would get grant money, Miller moved forward quickly.
He moved a few of the newer old cabins to other migrant camps, let people take a couple for storage sheds, and burned down the majority.
After deciding to apply for a building grant, Miller asked for $123,800 to put up new cabins and a shower room.
His proposal called for cabins measuring 15 feet by 45 feet, including two family sleeping units, one on either end, with a common kitchen area in the center. Reviewing the plans, the housing department decided the common area needed to be cement-floored, wanted some solar piping added and some propane heat installed.
The additions added another $3,900 to the proposal.
I think the state saw the need for migrant housing, Miller said, noting that the need was generalized across the state.
But Miller Orchards proposal drew the grantors eyes east.
For us to have workers here for five to six weeks and do this kind of project Miller trails off, it wasnt feasible.
But if funding was available for the project, Miller saw only good end results.
If you care more about the workers, and have nice facilities, they care more about their work, Miller contends. And the workers use local businesses such as stores, grocery stores, and laundries, benefitting the business community, too.
The Millers found out that they would get some of the migrant million in December. Then, because the grant would be one of only five in the state of more than $100,000, John Miller was asked to present his proposal to the housing council in Salem in person, in late January
Even that went smoothly.
We made a strong proposal, Miller said. They liked what they saw, which included pictures of the old cabins and plans for the new.
And it didnt hurt that Miller was from Eastern Oregon.
I think they wanted an eastside project, and we were it, he added. In fact, of the five grants of more than $100,000, only Millers is east of the Cascades.
Millers work for the grant is far from done. His contractor, Joe Fisher, will have to file reports on the building progress, and the housing department will send inspectors to check the work, which is scheduled to be finished by June. There are a lot of hoops, once the funding is granted, Miller says.
They will see not only new cabins, but new landscaping.
The remodeled camp will be flattened out by Larry Campbell and Miller is thinking about putting in a play area, perhaps, and some shade trees to make the ridge top camp a bit more comfortable.
It will have seven new double cabins, the old bunkhouse, a new shower and laundry tray facility, and the ubiquitous chemical toilets. The cabins are unheated, Miller said, since they are only used during the hottest weeks of the year.
During the course of the cherry harvest, Miller hosts about 130 workers at four camps, with the one getting updated being by far the largest.
The workers come each summer to help pick about 150 acres of a variety of cherries, acreage that Miller plans to expand gradually with more Lapins and Redlac cherries.
One huge issue for Miller and his pickers is the rapidly changing cherry market. The market for cherries to be canned or brined as maraschino cherries is disappearing, he said, and being replaced by a fresh cherry market.
That means more pickers will be needed for a shorter, more intense harvest, and they will have to be more careful if picking for the fresh fruit market.
Staying at Millers has some big advantages for pickers, since Miller doesnt charge them for use of the camps, and often allows the migrant pickers to stay at his camps while doing some work for other area cherry growers.
Miller takes a long look at the work thats being done. He joined the Oregon Sweet Cherry Commission to help stay up-to-date with markets and research, he said, even when the meetings demand more time traveling. And getting involved in remodeling his migrant camp has helped him draw more attention to the concerns of Eastern Oregon