Pumpkin patch company denies wrongdoing

James Fenton

FARMINGTON — The operators of a pumpkin farming operation on land owned by a Navajo agribusiness south of Farmington said a recent Indian Health Services incident report citing dozens of violations is mostly a case of retaliation.

Richard and John Hamby — a father and son who have run Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers Inc.on Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, or NAPI, land for 23 years — both say Patricia Ramirez, IHS district sanitarian, is out to get them.

John, left, and Richard Hamby, co-owners and operators of Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers, Inc., talk on Wednesday about a report listing numerous health violations cited by an Indian Health Services employee they say are retaliation while standing in the workers sleeping area at the business south of Farmington.

An incident on Sept. 29 involving a field worker who reported being sick after eating in the business' dining hall led to a food poisoning complaint filed with IHS.

The Hambys said they offered to take the worker to an urgent care center and ultimately took him to a motel in Farmington and paid for his stay there for two nights. They said he returned to work at the farm, but after they promoted him, he soon left and didn't return.

John Hamby, co-owner and operator of Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers, Inc., walks through the laundry room on Wednesday at the business' headquarters south of Farmington.

The complaint led to an inspection, followed by a seven-page letter outlining violations at the business along with a 64-page report of itemized "findings," including improper food storage, exit signs that lacked illumination and filthy cooking areas, among other problems. Though Ramirez's report states the purpose of the site visit was to investigate a "reported food-borne illness" at the facility, officials did not collect food samples for analysis to confirm that was the case, according to the Hambys.

"(Ramirez) came here and interviewed our workers and suggested to them that they had a food-borne illness and I told her that was unprofessional," Richard Hamby said. "And she just smiled. She said nothing."

Phone messages left for Ramirez seeking comment were not returned. When reached on Wednesday, Angela Gettler — a tribal labor compliance officer with the Office of Navajo Labor Relations — referred all questions regarding the report to the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President.

Mihio Manus, Office of the President and Vice President spokesman, did not respond to requests for comment by deadline on Wednesday.

The situation isn't new, according to the Hambys. Their business has been visited by IHS three years in a row, they said. Each of the previous years they were sent a violations report and no one followed up, they said. In 2013, they said, an unannounced visit by Ramirez and IHS officials resulted in heated exchanges between Ramirez  and other IHS officials and the pumpkin patch business' head chef.

Richard Hamby said when he arrived during that visit the tribal officials were taking photographs and walking through the facility.

"I told them, turn off your camera. You can't come in here and act like Nazis," he said. "I have run two restaurants in North Carolina for years and I have dealt with health and fire inspectors. They work with you."

John Hamby, co-owner and operator of Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers, Inc., talks about the sleeping area for workers on Wednesday at the business' headquarters south of Farmington.

Problems worsened in 2014 when Ramirez and IHS officials returned over violations at the pumpkin facility.

"I walked up to one of the gentlemen who works for IHS and I said, 'Hey, my name's John. If there's anything I can do to help you, if you have any questions,  feel free,'" John Hamby said. "I reached out to shake his hand and he told me, 'I just washed my hands. I'll come find you if I need you.' Then he took a picture of me and turned around and walked (away)."

The pumpkin business employs roughly 30 full-time workers year-round and thousands of field workers to harvest pumpkins as many as seven days a week for $8 to $12 an hour. They bus in a majority of the field workers from all over the Navajo Nation on nine school buses and offer them free housing during harvest season in on-site dormitories in two hangar-like buildings. The insides of the buildings have about 150 metal bunk beds that they bought from a shuttered military base in Alabama, Richard Hamby said. Workers have access to free laundry facilities and showers. Breakfast and dinner is served in the dining area each day and workers in the field are provided sack lunches. Food costs each worker $8 per day, which is deducted from their paychecks.

Richard Hamby said the workers, many of whom have spotty or no work history, work in the fields on schedules they choose and receive bi-monthly paychecks. On Saturday paydays, they are given the option of being bused to Walmart in Farmington to cash their checks, he said, but many never return.

The Hambys lease roughly two square miles at NAPI to grow millions of pumpkins, gourds and ornamental squash that the business ships to churches and other non-profits across the U.S. on a consignment basis. They take a portion of the proceeds those organizations earn from fundraising activities.

Pumpkins are seen Wednesday at the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry south of Farmington on land used by  Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers, Inc.

"It's all based on trust because we don't know how many you actually sold," John Hamby said. "That's why we work with churches and non-profits."

But the Hambys' trust in their arrangement with tribal officials who regulate them is at an all-time low, they said.

NAPI CEO Tsosie Lewis said that he is concerned over the violations and hopes the Hambys will comply.

"As long as there's transparency, that's the main thing," Lewis said on Tuesday during a short break from an executive session of a Navajo Nation Council committee meeting at NAPI headquarters. "It's been transparent so far."

During a tour of the pumpkin patch business' facility on Wednesday, the Hambys — Ramirez's report in hand — pointed out areas where violations allegedly occurred. They say the report shows an attempt by Ramirez to exaggerate their compliance problems, not to help them better follow the rules.

John Hamby said the irony is the pumpkin business received an excellence in safety award from the Navajo Nation Department of Safety and Health last year.

"We're here to be good citizens in the community, but someone has got it in for us, but I don't know why," Richard Hamby said.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.