Near the middle of the Wickham farm in Cut­chogue, an old bungalow is being remodeled for workforce housing. Two new bathrooms are being added, along with new bedrooms, heating and air conditioning and a handsome deck that overlooks Wickham Creek and south across expansive farmland.

Next week, six workers from Guatemala, all with government-approved agricultural visas, will arrive to begin the new season on this historic fruit farm. They will move into the new bungalow, which will be their seasonal home going forward.

“We have been very lucky with very good workers,” said Tom Wickham of the family-owned farm. “They are hardworking people and wonderful to deal with. We couldn’t ask for better people. We are a busy farm and, like most businesses, we need good workers — and these are good workers.

“We have felt we owed them a good, reliable and clean place to live,” he added. “They work from early in the morning to late in the afternoon. They take a lunch break at noon. This will provide them with the comfort and support they deserve.”

Across the North Fork, housing — workforce housing and otherwise — is among the biggest issues facing governments and businesses. With six-figure housing costs, sky-high rents and homeowners who only rent to high-paying summer residents, available housing for workers is scarce.

At a recent “Future of Greenport” forum, several speakers identified the availability of housing as their No. 1 worry going forward. Representatives of two large Greenport entities — Peconic Landing and Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital — said many of their employees live far up west and have long commutes. They simply can’t afford to live here — including highly paid doctors.

Farms are unique places on the North Fork, with their own special worker needs. On any given day during the season on the Wickham farm, tomatoes needed to be picked and sent up to the farm stand on Main Road. Beyond tomatoes are a host of other fruits — from apples to peaches to pears and cherries. 

Each day, Mr. Wickham meets with his workers to outline which parts of the farm need the most attention that morning, and what fruit has to be picked that very day to bring up to the stand. Not having reliable workers, he said in an interview Monday, would endanger the very existence of the farm.

“We couldn’t get the work done,” he said. 

Monday morning, Mr. Wickham gave a visitor a tour of the remodeled bungalow, where work was still being done in preparation for next week. Its original portion was tiny and decades ago was home to a man named Irv Billiard, who sold the farm the cider press that is now used to make apple cider. 

Later, the Wickhams bought a small shed from a farmer on Oregon Road in Cutchogue, moved it via tractor and added it to the older bungalow to make it larger and more comfortable.

Now, a whole new remodeling is underway that will be done before the six workers arrive next week. Mr. Wickham showed the new kitchen, with handsome new cabinets, new bedrooms, two new bathrooms — one wheelchair accessible — a new I/A septic system that was recently installed behind the bungalow, along with fire suppression sprinklers and heating and air conditioning.

Workforce housing on North Fork farms has a dark history. Farm labor camps that were home to Southern-born Black men and women — and even children — existed in nearly every hamlet. The workers supported the potato and duck industries, and as those enterprises faded, the camps were shuttered. The last camp of its kind sat on Depot Lane in Cutchogue.

Across the region, many day laborers who support farming, landscaping and dozens of small businesses, rent rooms in overcrowded houses. At the Greenport forum, hosted by Times Review Media Group, several people spoke of both the difficulty of finding housing for new and existing employees, and the substandard conditions in overcrowded residences.

The Wickham remodeling has not been without challenges — and these raise existential questions as to whether other farmers or local businesses can follow this example. For starters, a state farm-housing grant funneled through Suffolk County to offset construction costs came with far too many onerous conditions to be workable, and Mr. Wickham reluctantly turned it down.

While the costs of construction are high -—$300 a square foot for a building of approximately 550 square feet — additional costs required by town and county governments have sent the overall costs of the project to approximately $400,000. Without the grant, Mr. Wickham said, he has turned to banks for help.

Because the farm is considered a commercial operation, current code required the new septic system — at about $40,000. Suffolk County code required public water to be added, tacking approximately $56,000 to the price tag.

At the conclusion of the tour, Mr. Wickham, a former Southold Town supervisor, said that at some point in the future he would address the Town Board on the government requirements that caused him, at several points along the way, to wish he had not gone ahead with it.

“Does what we are doing apply in other situations?” he asked. Can it be replicated? “That’s a difficult question. I would say only if these added costs and such things as density are looked at first.

“You can’t run a business without a reliable workforce,” Mr. Wickham said. “And these workers have to understand the job to work productively all day long. People have long come to the North Fork with an agricultural background — Irish immigrants and Polish immigrants. Now we have a cycle of immigrants from Central America. And they are pleasure to work with. They work hard, they are paid, they enjoy the work and they are helping families back home. Housing is essential to make all this work.”

Considering the costs and code requirements, Mr. Wickham said his hesitation about going forward with the workforce housing project was short-lived.

“It was the right thing to do,” he said. 

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