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Leaders get education on farm worker life, urban agriculture

Leaders get education on farm worker life, urban agriculture

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Leaders get education on farm worker life, urban agriculture

By Erik J. Alsgaard | Jan. 21, 2010 {1126}

IMMOKALEE — Florida grows more tomatoes than any other state — 1.45 billion pounds’ worth in 2007 — producing an annual crop valued at more than $500 million.

Standing in the parking lot of a small grocery store in Immokalee, farm workers Silvia Perez (center) and Neli Rodriguez (right) tell conference leaders how area migrant workers rise before dawn every day in order to make it to that parking lot and others around southwest Florida in time to be chosen to work the fields. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #10-1370.

For most people, buying tomatoes is as simple as choosing the ripest fruit at the local supermarket or making sure their hamburger or taco has all the fixings. Most of those same people never give a second thought to where those tomatoes came from or how they got on their plate.

Florida Conference Bishop Tim Whitaker and the cabinet — district superintendents and other senior conference leaders — recently spent a day learning where those tomatoes are grown and some of the issues surrounding how they are harvested.

Every year, the cabinet has a retreat following the fall charge conference season. After the last season, Whitaker wanted to emphasize a mission focus. The cabinet’s subsequent visits tie in with the theme for the 2010 Florida Annual Conference Event: eradicating extreme poverty.

On a warm December day, the cabinet gathered in North Ft. Myers to take a church bus to Immokalee. They also spent time at ECHO, an organization that helps people improve their agricultural skills so they can be more effective in their work with the poor.

No easy life

After a one-hour bus ride, the leadership group stood in the parking lot of a small grocery store in Immokalee. There, two farm workers — Silvia Perez and Neli Rodriguez — shared how they and hundreds of others rise at 4 a.m. in order to make it to one of several parking lots in this southwest Florida city in time to be chosen for a day’s worth of tomato picking.

On a good day, they earn $50.

The Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW) served as host for the bishop and leaders, inviting the farm workers to speak to the group.

“The Coalition for Immokalee Workers is supported throughout The United Methodist Church, particularly across the United States,” Whitaker said. “I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to bring members of the cabinet here, especially the superintendents, to learn about the Coalition and how it came into being and what its mission is.”

CIW works to improve the quality of life for farm workers in Florida, most of whom come from Central America, he said.

Leonel Perez hoists a red plastic bucket filled with 32 pounds of white rice — about what a bucket of tomatoes would weigh — and asked if any among the conference leaders gathered wanted to try carrying the bucket a few feet and then hoisting it on their shoulders. No one did. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #10-1371.

“Their work is related to the issue of poverty, and to the issue of justice for the people who pick the food that we eat,” he added. “ECHO is an agency that serves people in many nations around the world who live in tropical and semi-tropical regions, and it teaches them the skills they need to be self sufficient.”

“We work 10- to 12-hour days,” Perez said through an interpreter. Perez, a native of Guatemala, was one of four farm workers to address the group. She also led them on a brief tour of Immokalee to see some of the workers’ homes.

“Workers pay about $50 per week to live in these houses,” Perez said, standing in front of an old, dilapidated singlewide trailer. “Fifteen to 20 people live in each of the homes in order to pay the rent. Many have no bathrooms, and the kitchen is just a stove and a table that seats four people.”

People pay more for these homes, Perez said, because they are located closer to the parking lots where the workers are selected. Other, more fortunate workers are able to ride a bicycle to work — or simply walk a greater distance — which enables a somewhat cheaper rent.

At the Coalition’s headquarters — a modern community center with a food co-op and low-powered FM radio station — conference leaders heard from other farm workers who explained the grueling work they do, often under extreme conditions.

“If you are 20 to 40 years old, you have a much better chance of being selected,” said Leonel Perez through an interpreter. “It’s because you work faster.”

When workers arrive at the field, often after a lengthy bus trip, they have to wait for the plants to dry. Once they start working, no breaks are allowed, and workers compete against each other to pick the most buckets.

Each bucket, when filled, weighs about 32 pounds. “For each of these buckets,” he said, “you get paid 40 to 45 cents. This is the same rate of pay as in 1978.”

On a good day, when the tomato harvest is at its peak, workers will fill, carry and hoist 120 to 125 buckets. On a bad day, only 10, “and that doesn’t even pay for your food for the day,” Perez said.

Perez holds up the bloodstained shirt of a farm worker who was beaten for taking a break from his work to get a drink of water. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #10-1372.

Workers receive no benefits, overtime pay or pension. Perez has worked the fields for six years.

Justice for workers

Coalition staffers have been advocating for better working conditions for years. In the late 1990s, Perez said, one worker was beaten simply for getting a drink of water while out picking. He held up the still-bloodstained shirt as proof.

The Coalition began in 1993 when a hand-full of workers gathered in a local church to discuss better working conditions. A hunger strike by six of its members in 1998 brought national attention to their cause and some help to the workers.

The Coalition began a “Fair Food” campaign in 2001, launching a boycott of Taco Bell over the low wages paid to workers and poor working conditions. Taco Bell agreed in 2005 to pay workers one cent per pound more for their work and not to purchase tomatoes from growers who abuse or participate in enslaving workers. Other fast-food companies, such as McDonalds, Subway and Burger King, have also joined the agreement.

Today, CIW is also active in anti-slavery issues, helping investigators break up seven slavery rings in the area, the last of which was dismantled in 2007.

“More than 1,000 workers have been freed from slavery,” said Cruz Salucio, who works alongside Perez in the fields. “Fifteen supervisors are in jail right now for their crimes. We’ve received awards for uncovering slavery, but we’d rather there not be any slavery and not win more awards.”

Agricultural tech support

After the trip to Immokalee, the leaders traveled back to ECHO, whose vision is “to bring glory to God and a blessing to mankind by using science and technology to help the poor,” according to its Web site.

Located in North Ft. Myers, ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization) exists for one major reason, according to Stan Doerr, president and chief executive officer, who took the group on a guided tour.

“We recognize that there are people all over the world working with the poor in areas of medicine, education, agriculture and spiritual training,” he said. “ECHO has become the repository of success stories and good ideas that are collected from around the world to help those working with the poor be more effective, especially in the area of agriculture,” he said.

Stan Doerr shows conference leaders how aluminum cans are used in place of soil as an anchor for the roots of the plant. It is an example of the “urban gardening” being implemented at ECHO. Photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #10-1373.

In short, Doerr said, ECHO — an approved United Methodist Advance Special — has become agricultural technical support for community developers and missionaries around the world.

During the tour, ECHO’s guests learned about hundreds of species of plants and a wide variety of farming techniques. Among the plants was the moringa tree, whose leaves are edible and provide numerous vitamins. By drying the leafs, turning them into a powder and then sprinkling it on rice or corn meal, Doerr said, blindness caused by vitamin A deficiencies has been cured.

“This truly is a miracle tree,” he said.

The visitors also saw demonstrations on how to grow vegetables using old soda cans and carpet and how to turn manure into a usable fuel (methane) using 55-gallon drums, some tubing and an inner tube. They also tasted raw moringa, picked fresh from the tree.

When ECHO began in the 1970’s, Doerr said, it built an A-frame building on United Methodist Church property.

“And the bishop came and said, ‘What are you doing building on property that you rent from us for $1 per year?’ And the response was, ‘That’s okay; one day, we’ll own it.’ ”

Today, ECHO covers more than 50 acres and is open for tours several days a week.

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.