A trusted farm hand retires
After years of working at J. Frank Schmidt Nursery to pay for his children's education, Pedro Reyes retires to his home country of Mexico
At Schmidt farms, Pedro Reyes is called Don Pedro.
"For respect," says equipment foreman Francisco Ramirez.
At nearly 75, Reyes' is an elder statesman at J. Frank Schmidt and Son in Boring. He arrived in October 1979 as a contract laborer. In 1980, after a ferocious ice storm shut down much of the nursery's operation, Reyes elected to leave the labor contractor and throw in his lot with the Schmidt firm. Reyes believes he and four others were among the first Hispanic workers to work directly for Schmidt.
Leaving the labor contractor was a risk. So was walking across the border to earn the money he needed to educate his six children.
But it has paid off. In 1980, Reyes got his first profit-sharing report from the Schmidt firm, $250, he remembers. Ultimately, he became a legal resident with a green card under an amnesty program for migrant workers. During his career, he says he earned enough to build a house in Mexico. His wife of 50 years, Raquel Rios, is there. She came north a few times, but never liked it here and is at home in Guanajuato on the rancho with cows, pigs and a horse.
Reyes first came to the United States in his teens to pick fruit as a contract worker. Raised in a poor family, he began working as soon as he was big enough to be of help to his father. After his marriage, he lived and worked in Mexico for 18 years. When he realized he needed to educate his children, he again came across the border, this time illegally.
Their six children are spread across two countries, two in Mexico, and four in the United States. One is a lawyer. Another studied mechanics. Another is a public accountant. Some of his grandchildren are U.S. citizens and some are citizens of Mexico.
He shakes his head in disgust and says his U.S. children, "do not minister their money well."
"Mucho libertad," he says, too much freedom is not always a good thing. He understands English, but for nuance and clarity, speaks through interpreter Brenda Torres.
Don Pedro says he can live on his Social Security in Mexico, so he will retire there, but his feet are planted in two countries and he will be visiting his children here often.
Reyes, says Nancy Buley of the Schmidt firm, puts "a face on the field worker who is the neighbor of many in our community, and upon whose hands and back most of the metro area's agricultural economy…rides."
Another set of hands, another back will have to take his place. Like most agriculture in Oregon, the Schmidt firm relies heavily on an immigrant labor force. Buley says 80 to 85 percent of the 550 workers in the Schmidt firm are of Latino heritage.
Friday was Don Pedro's last day of work at Schmidt. Still strong and erect, and sporting a pencil-thin moustache, he spent 27 years growing trees for the nursery. He did nearly every task on the place, including being a crew leader supervising 15 to 20 workers. His favorite jobs were pruning and grading, and he keeps a pair of pruners in his pocket in the same way a cowboy carries a six-gun.
He still likes the work, he says, but he has had back surgery and some tasks are harder than they used to be.
"I will miss the work, the people, the trees," he says, spreading his hands to encompass the farm. Leaving will be "really hard."
For many of his years, Reyes worked with J. Frank Schmidt Jr., founder of the nursery, who died in December 2004. Schmidt had Don Pedro's respect. And Don Pedro enjoyed the corn that Schmidt planted in the employee garden.
"He was constantly working without stopping," he marveled about his boss, smiling as he mentioned Schmidt's old station wagon that he drove around the farm.
"He didn't differentiate himself from other people," he explained.