By David Abel | Globe Staff | 9/23/2002
AGAWAM - With Puritan laws once banning the planting of seeds, the early arrival of frost spoiling autumn harvests, and developers steadily buying much of the land, it's never been easy to grow tobacco in this once-thriving Western Massachusetts agricultural community.
Now, with subdivisions and strip malls covering most of the fertile land and SUVs far outnumbering tractors, the few farmers left here lead an increasingly lonely existence.
For Elaine and Calvin Arnold, a tobacco-farming couple who own 42 acres of farmland surrounded by homes, much of the last two years has been "a living nightmare."
The Arnolds complain they have been repeatedly harassed and had their equipment and crops vandalized. Since they decided to build a dormitory for 27 migrant workers on their land, they have been steeped in such an acrimonious spat with their neighbors that they recently attracted the support of the US Justice Department.
Last week, the Justice Department joined the couple and four workers in bringing suit, charging the town and its zoning board with discrimination. The dispute had already sparked two lawsuits against Agawam, one filed by the Arnolds and the other by the Jamaican and Puerto Rican migrant workers.
"You'd think we would be past this by now, but I don't think there's any other word for it than racism," said Elaine Arnold, while showing off thousands of tobacco leaves the workers recently cut and hung to dry. "The neighbors and the city have done everything they can to make our lives miserable."
Responding to the Justice Department's charge that the town violated the federal Fair Housing Act, Agawam Mayor Richard A. Cohen said, "It's absolutely not true. It could not be any more frivolous."
More than a year ago, the Planning Board approved the Arnolds' design to build a dormitory and a maintenance garage. But after neighbors in this mostly white community complained, telling officials at public hearings they feared increases in crime and prostitution, the Zoning Board of Appeals rejected the plan.
Denying that prejudice motivated their reversal, municipal officials said the board acted for "merely procedural" reasons. Neighbors, who have formed the Dormitory Action Group, collected more than 850 signatures in a petition against the project, and hired a lawyer to defend their interests. They now mainly voice concerns about increased traffic, noise, and damage to wetlands.
"There has been absolutely no discrimination," Cohen said.
The row took root four years ago when the Arnolds, longtime farmers who own C & E Tobacco Inc., leased three parcels of land in hopes of cultivating more than 150,000 pounds of broad-leaf tobacco to sell to cigar manufacturers. Hoping to cut transportation costs, the couple sought permission from the town to build a 2,800-square-foot dormitory for their migrant workers, now housed in three camps about an hour away in Connecticut.
When the town approved their plans early last year, the Arnolds decided to buy part of the property they had been leasing along North West Street. Now, the Arnolds say they're losing thousands of dollars a year and feeling the pinch of their neighbors - who have begun calling the police for everything from the smell of pesticides to the noise of their tractors.
"We never used to get these complaints before we proposed building the housing," Elaine Arnold said. "Do you think that's just a coincidence?"
Neighbors say the Arnolds have threatened them and say the matter would never have become so contentious had the couple consulted them before going to the planning commission.
Before the couple took over the land, the neighbors say, they used to walk their dogs on the property and ride snowmobiles there in the winter. They complain the Arnolds won't let anyone on their property and have told neighbors they intend to build the dormitories - the federal government requires farms who employ migrant workers to provide housing - whether they like it or not.
Racism, they insist, is a red herring. The real issue, they say, is what introducing 27 migrant workers into the community and what the extra housing will do to everything from property values to water tables to the peace and tranquillity they had become accustomed to.
"We would be just as up in arms if this was a dormitory for white students," said Dee Duncan, a neighbor of the property for the past 29 years. "We bought here because it was quiet and peaceful and we could hear the frogs at night. We want it to stay that way."
Another neighbor, Kathy Mancini, who has lived in the area for 20 years, said, "We have nothing against anyone. We just have legitimate concerns."
To the scores of black and brown migrant workers, who are increasingly an anachronism in this town of 28,000, the strident opposition to their living on the farm seems very much like racism. They work between 80 and 100 hours a week during the harvest season, toiling for $7.94 an hour, and they say living on the farm would make their lives much easier as it would eliminate most, if not all, of their daily commute.
From May through October, Lloyd Henry, a 43-year-old father of four from Jamaica, wakes around 3 a.m. every day to cook breakfast and lunch, then picks up other workers in an old gray school bus, and arrives at the farm at 7 a.m.
He spends the day planting seeds, cutting stalks or hanging tobacco leaves, and doesn't arrive back at the camps until well past sundown. "It's offensive for anyone to suggest that we would steal or do any other crimes," said Henry, who has spent seven seasons working in Agawam. "We are good, hard-working people."
Another longtime employee of C & E Tobacco, Junior Forte - also a 43-year-old father of four from Jamaica - said he used to like the residents he met around town. But now, he said, he's losing respect.
"This whole thing just makes me think less of the people," he said. "They're giving us a bad name and that's just sad."
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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