Oranges hang on the branches in a grove near Fellsmere. While Florida still has a citrus industry, it has drastically declined in the past two decades. (JEAN GONZALEZ | FC)

Farmworker life in the wake of citrus decline

Editor’s note: Farmworkers interviewed in this article asked their last names not to be used.

To contribute to our Long Sleeve Relief Campaign which helps farmworkers in need, click on the link on our Home Page or https://thefloridacatholic.org/lsr/

FELLSMERE  | In its heyday, a spectrum of various colors of oranges and yellows from citrus fruit served as a vibrant badge of Indian River County. Early and mid-season oranges, tangerines, tangelos, navels and Valencias were shipped by the millions. Locals of the Treasure Coast would boast their area farmed the sweetest grapefruits in the world.

Groves dotted the coastal town of Vero and the inland, rural town of Fellsmere. In 1994, the Vero Beach Press Journal printed a history of the area, that focused on the booming citrus industry. It reported that the total boxes of citrus grown in Indian River County went from 6.4 million in 1965-66, to 12.2 million in 1971-72, to 15.2 million in 1981-82 and finally to 19 million in the banner year of 1991-92. Total acreage of trees, including non-bearing citrus trees, increased 61% in the same time period. The 1994 article also stated there were 20 packing houses in the country, one processing plant, and about 400 major and minor growers.

Business continued to boom, until time and Mother Nature took their tolls.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, freezes actually helped the citrus industry of Indian River County as growers who lived in northern parts of the state flocked to the area for warmer climes. But then freezes hurt many areas of Florida and the destruction of hurricanes — especially the back-to-back storms of 2004 and subsequent storms years later — rocked the area. That, combined with citrus diseases, such as canker and citrus greening (otherwise known as huanglongbing or HLB) has led to a dramatic economic downturn.

According to information from the Florida Department of Agriculture, Florida’s citrus industry, estimated to be worth $9 billion at its peak to the state’s economy, has lost more than 60% of its production — from more than 200 million boxes in the 2003-04 season to fewer than 50 million boxes in 2018.

Those numbers especially seemed to hit growers in Indian River County, and in many cases tough decisions had to be made in light of groves and farms not producing what they once did. And for farmworkers in the area, those facts are just numbers; they represent of loss of wages, jobs and their livelihood.

The Florida Catholic spoke with four longtime farmworkers who live in the Fellsmere area. They gathered at the local office of the Farmworkers Association of Florida. Along with Elizabeth, Maria, Guillermina and Juan Jose, were Maria Martinez, a former farmworker who serves as the Fellsmere area coordinator and organizer, and Blanca Valentin, who staffs the office’s Campesino Gardens. All six people came to the United States from Mexico, some as much as three decades ago.



A CHANGING LANDSCAPE

Juan Jose, who is visually impaired and walks with a white cane, was born in Michoacán, Mexico, which is 2,000 miles from Fellsmere, due west from the capitol of Mexico City. He has been in the United States since the late 1970s. He has picked strawberries in California, tobacco in North Carolina, corn in Iowa and Nebraska, and of course, oranges across Florida, including in and around Polk County where the citrus industry is still alive.
But Fellsmere has been his home since 1998. He spoke about the farming industry with an air of knowledge and experience.

“The trees are like people. When they get old, they need more attention, more love,” Juan Jose said. “And sometimes, like people, they need to retire.”

Elizabeth has lived in the United States for 27 years. Much of that time was spent raising her family and working on a nursery started by her ex-husband. It was family and the hope of working in more tranquil, rural center that prompted her to move from Miami to Fellsmere. 

“I didn’t like Miami. There was no nature, not like here. It’s very peaceful here. Very nice,” Elizabeth said. “And when I first arrived there were groves of mandarin (oranges), but they all dried up. It’s sad.”

Guillermina, who came to the United States in 1996 and immediately started working as a farmworker, witnessed how year by year, trees produced less fruit and owners decided not to put the time and effort in “renewing the land and keeping it up.” As she spoke, it was easy to hear the melancholy in her voice.

Martinez described Guillermina and Maria as “two of the best pickers” she has known. Both women picked oranges for years and years. While Maria cracked a small smile at the compliment Martinez gave, it was fleeting. A native of Chiapas, the southernmost province in Mexico that borders Guatemala, Maria fled to the United States in 2005 to earn money for her family, who included her mother and four children. She has now six children, three with her in Fellsmere and three in Mexico.

While the seasoned citrus picker tries to stay local as much as possible, a lack of steady income within Florida meant she had to move to other places to pick other produce. When not in Fellsmere, she might travel to Ohio to pick cucumbers. Without childcare locally, her children travel with her as she followed the pattern of the different vegetable or fruit-picking seasons.

The biggest problem with that is the children’s education. Sometimes schools will not accept the children of seasonal workers to enroll in a new school. They get behind on their own education. The other five people — who are also all parents — understood the pain, inconvenience and uncertainty involved in moving from location to location for farm work, especially when children are involved. 

Maria wished she could always stay in one place, but seasonal work helped bring in money. And since the citrus industry economy has slowed, finding work at all is a difficult obstacle to overcome.

FARM WORK: A DANGEROUS
LABOR OF LOVE

Guillermina is a native of Vera Cruz, which is 2,000 miles from Fellsmere, but still found within the crescent-shaped strip of land wedged between the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains and the Gulf of Mexico. She has had her share of moving to find work but was able to establish roots in Fellsmere.

“The area used to be huge with groves, but now some of those beautiful groves are stores — Home Depot, Marshall’s, McDonalds,” said Guillermina, who has also been employed in landscaping, packing plants and house cleaning as farm jobs dried up. “The owners, like the trees, are older and, some trees don’t produce at all.”

While she misses that, she is glad that some of the land has reemerged with alternate produce — potatoes, carrots, different types of peppers, melons, watercress, blueberries, and even peaches further south in Indrio, in St. Lucie County.

“There’s even dragonfruit,” she said, that glimmer in her eyes that reveals just how much she loves the farmland. 

Yet despite her love for helping put food on American’s tables, farm work is exhausting and at times, dangerous. A drive along County Road 512 towards Fellsmere offers a quick glance of a few groves where some of the larger trees are squared off at the top. Growers do that so fruit doesn’t grow on tall branches. Picking fruit off tall trees is hazardous for farmworkers, who are not covered by certain OSHA standards and not generally covered by insurance or gain workmen’s compensation.

But when asked for the biggest dangers faced by farmworkers in the fields, the answer was unanimous among the six: chemicals.

Citrus growing uses an abundance of different chemicals — insecticides, herbicides, parasiticides, fungicides, fertilizers and disinfectants — to keep the crops alive and pest-free. But the rough chemicals damage the soil as it protects the fruit, which is a side effect that might explain while some groves are no longer viable as farmland. 

And along with that are the toll to those who toil in the fields.
“These chemicals, they don’t tell us what they are or what they might do to us,” Guillermina said. “I was given a recipe and told to mix up the chemicals. I brought my own masks and gloves.”

The comment made both Elizabeth and Juan Jose nod their heads in agreement. 

“Many times, you would be cutting fruit on one side of trees, and they would be spraying from tractors across a canal from the workers,” Elizabeth explained. “The chemicals would just spray on your face.”

Juan Jose spoke about workers he had known who developed cancers in their stomach or back, suffering those complications in their 40s or 50s. “If you complain (about the chemicals) they would say, ‘Stay and work or go.’”

But he added workers have a right to safe work environments. The only way to achieve that is as a collective voice. Working in the farmworker office, Martinez has seen how the chemicals cause distress among those she serves and completely agreed with Juan Jose.

But as much as they want to have a voice, workers fear retaliation from many directions. One of those directions is the increased number of workers with H-2A visas. 

FINDING WORK AND KEEPING WORK

Employers in the United States can hire seasonal workers through the H-2A (for agricultural workers) or H-2B (non-agricultural, such as forestry, amusement park, hospitality, seafood processing and landscape) visa programs. While there is a cap on the number of employees can have H-2B status with an employer, no numerical cap to how many agricultural guest workers can be brought in each year through the H-2A program. 

Martinez explained how the program, where workers stay to work for three to six months, depending on the employer’s needs, is fueled by an imbalance of power. Since it is the employer, not the foreign worker, who applies for labor certification, the employee is at the mercy of what the boss requests. They are unable to switch jobs while in the United States. They are told where to work, how long to work and are given a set rate of pay, no questions asked.

There are have many H-2A workers who seek assistance at the Farmworker Association office in Fellsmere, sometimes in groups, telling Martinez of the abuses they face. But there is the fear if they speak out, they will face dire consequences. 

“They want a voice, but they feel they have no voice,” Martinez said, saying they workers face low pay and difficult, and again, sometimes dangerous working conditions.

“It’s slave labor,” Juan Jose added, garnering agreement in the room.
The group also said that the wages and attitudes towards the H-2A visa workers trickles down to longtime farmworkers. Referring to H-2A workers as “contract workers,” they said bosses on farms, ranches, etc., might change the rate for a day’s work from a previously set price. Established workers might expect one rate, but because there are “contracted workers” available, that rate is diminished sometimes drastically.

“You are told either take that rate or leave,” Juan Jose said. “Because they know there are (H-2A) workers who have to take the lower rate.”
It’s difficult to find jobs when bosses can hire people at lower rates, Elizabeth said. She added because there is no cap on the number of H-2A visas, there is no accounting for how many guest workers might come in for jobs.

The group does not fault those who enter on the guest visa because they understand the necessity of coming to work in the United States. They, along with those workers, came to America seeking better living wages and conditions. But they have also seen, while they have papers for legal residency, it does not seem to always help in gaining employment. Not when there are contract workers available who are charged to do the job at a lower rate.

But without a voice and legislation to protect farmworkers, whether established here in the United States or as a guest worker, those who tend the fields can be prone to work abuses. And that lack of negotiation of working rates can trickle down to other industries, such as landscaping and construction.

WORKING TO GAIN A VOICE

The Farmworker Association of Florida has several offices across Florida, including its headquarters in Apopka, Pierson, Homestead, Immokalee and Fellsmere. Martinez explained her office works toward pesticide safety and environmental health, immigrants’ and workers’ rights, civic engagement and civic participation and the Campesinos’ Gardens.

One of the reasons the gardens started in 2011 was to offer local farmworkers to tend to a garden and reap the fruits and vegetables of their labors. The dragonfruit Guillermina spoke about in the interview brought a smile to her face, but it can sell for $6 to $8 per pound. Fruits such as grapes much be picked by farmworkers but at $2, $3, or $4 per pound, those same workers cannot eat them, Martinez said. 

That is why working to give farmworkers a voice is such a critical part of the association’s mission. Martinez said the association works at convincing lawmakers through education and awareness to provide critical legislation that benefit farmworkers, such as an appropriate heat stress bill, bills that address hazards of working with chemicals, especially for pregnant women in the fields. There is a need for farmworker voices in local government
“Eighty-nine percent of the population in Fellsmere is Hispanic,” Martinez said, adding many of whom work or have worked in agricultural work. “Guess how many Hispanics are in local government? None.”

It is for that very reason that organizing workers as a means to both educate them and empower them. On one wall of the office are quilt squares created by children of farmworkers that entail dangers pesticides pose for workers and consumers. As one square states, as translating from Spanish to English, “How wonderful it would be if the fruits that I take home are without chemicals or pesticides. It’s a great progress for our life, and a universal achievement.” Another child included words that highlight worker needs: wear long shirts and pants to protect from pesticides and the sun; have water available to drink; have eyewear available; and have masks and gloves available when using chemicals. When possible, Martinez shares this artwork with local and state legislators.

“The children understand these messages, and so should lawmakers and community members,” Martinez said. 

None of these messages or topics discussed by the farmworkers involve new experiences. Whether their experiences in the fields are a few years or a few decades, they know working for the rights of a just wage and a safe working environment is an age-old and ongoing situation. 

And when asked what they hope people who are not in the fields understand about farmworkers and their lives, Guillermina seemed to grasp the sentiment of the group.

“Let (readers) know we are to know we are human beings. We all have the same blood,” she said. “The only difference between us and them are those numbers — Social Security numbers.”

And while it might be thought not all farmworkers have papers, that is not always true. While there are workers who crossed the border without documentation, there are also workers who are working towards getting papers or possess them. Those are immigration issues Martinez and other staffers help support in their office. But regardless of a person’s status, the brings up an issue that Martinez emphatically shares. 

“People without documents should not be called illegals,” she said. “They are undocumented immigrants. No person is illegal.”