4517 Ascot Circle South,  Sarasota, Florida 34235

(941) 351-8726

Sarasota/Manatee Farmworker Supporters is a branch of the National Farmworker Ministry


Alejandro Reyes, President

M. Frances Eckstein, Vice-President for Communications

Marvin Mills, Secretary and President Emeritus







SATURDAY, DECEMBER 3, 2005 – 2:00 to 4:00 P.M.

SELBY PUBLIC LIBRARY, 1331 First Street, Sarasota


A general meeting of all interested supporters of farmworkers will be held this Saturday, December 3, 2005, at 2:00 P.M. in the auditorium of the Selby Public Library.


This meeting is being held to discuss current issues regarding farmworkers, including pressing matters involving current immigration proposals and the impact of recent hurricanes on Florida’s farmworkers.  The SMFWS’ positions on current legislation will also be discussed.  Finally, the meeting will serve to select topics for the organization’s issue forums for 2006.


Make plans to come and contribute your ideas and join in a lively discussion of farmworker issues!




The SMFWS hosted its annual Cesar Chavez Memorial Dinner on November 7, 2005 at the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre in Sarasota.   The well-attended event was a celebration of Chavez’s legacy, as well as an opportunity for farmworker supporters to rededicate themselves to realization of Chavez’s dream of decent wages and working conditions for America’s agricultural workers.


The keynote address was given by Tirso Moreno, general coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida, the largest statewide farmworker membership organization in Florida.  Moreno, who arrived at the dinner after a day of meetings in Tallahassee advocating for assistance for the thousands of farmworkers impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and  Wilma, gave a comprehensive overview of the major issues facing Florida farmworkers in the coming years.  Moreno, a former farmworker, warned of the dangers farmworkers and consumers face from the ineffective regulation of pesticide use by federal and state authorities.  He also urged those in attendance to support current efforts in Congress to legalize the status of the nation’s undocumented farmworkers as part of a comprehensive immigration reform package.


Recognized at the dinner for their unsung efforts on behalf of Florida farmworkers were Dr. Omar Shafey and Sister Ann DeNicolo.  Dr. Shafey, currently with the American Cancer Society, headed the pesticide surveillance program for the Florida Department of Health from 1998 through 2000.  He was fired when he refused his superiors’ demand that he refuse to classify as inconclusive a number of incidents in which farmworkers were poisoned by misuse of pesticides.  Sister Ann DeNicolo serves as the program director of Catholic Charities’ office in Arcadia.  Along with her dedicated staff, Sister Ann was an outspoken advocate for the  thousands of farmworkers in Arcadia who lost their homes and jobs when Hurricane Charley struck the area in 2004.  Sister Ann and Catholic Chariteis are leading the effort to construct decent, affordable housing in the Arcadia area to accommodate the area’s growing migrant population.


The SMFWS netted just over $1,000 in proceeds from the dinner.  At its November board meeting, the SMFWS board voted to divide these funds between groups providing direct assistance to migrant workers in Bradenton, Arcadia and Wauchula.










For breaking news on farmworkers and their struggle, go to the Sarasota/Manatee Farm Worker Supporters webpage.  Updated daily, the web page contains the nation’s most complete listing of news items relating to farmworkers (plus several years of archives!)










November 6, 2005




Mario Elias Gervacio doesn’t work on an assembly line or hold a government job. He’s not even a U.S. citizen.

Each spring for the past five years, Gervacio has left his town of Senguio, Michoacán, Mexico, and come north to plant and pull tobacco on a Guilford County farm for almost six months. He rose from simple farmhand to crew leader.

This year, he had an added duty: union treasurer.

For the first time, the welfare of Gervacio and 4,100 fellow “guest” migrant workers is under the auspices of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Gervacio and his brethren are card-carrying union men working in the depths of anti-union America.

While they are here, FLOC’s mission is to ensure that the temporary migrant workers are treated fairly, receive adequate quarters and get appropriate medical care.

For Gervacio, the union is an advocate, a watch dog. At a union meeting this past June, he told a story of being grabbed a few years ago by a man who questioned his immigration status when he was out doing errands.

“ 'I’m going to call the cops on you — how did you get over here,’ ” he recalled the man saying.

“I have confidence that they are working toward fixing these problems,” he said.

It is not that Gervacio and the others expect union representatives to be with them all of the time. But he would like people to know that not all Mexican workers come here illegally, and he hopes the union will publicize that fact.

But for some farmers and the N.C. Growers Association (NCGA), the union remains a nuisance and duplicative of their own mission to foster worker welfare.

“The first full year of NCGA’s relationship with FLOC has been a rocky one although we are optimistic that many of the problems we saw this year will be worked out,” Stan Eury, president of the NCGA, said.

Seeds of a union

The union’s role in North Carolina grew from a protracted management-labor dispute. This particular one involved a five-year fight between union organizers and the Mt. Olive Pickle Co.

Union representatives and human rights workers said the Mount Olive, N.C.-based pickle company’s suppliers had been subjecting guest migrant workers to low wages, poor living conditions and intimidation.

North Carolina’s agricultural industry has grown increasingly reliant since 1989 on bringing these workers from Mexico into the United States to do work at low pay that no U.S. citizen is willing to do.

Last year, the union, Mt. Olive and the N.C. Growers Association struck a three-way agreement that lifted a boycott of M t. Olive and allowed the union to represent the guest migrant workers.

Workers were recruited in Mexico by the union. And when the men returned to North Carolina this past spring and summer, part of their processing at the N.C. Growers Association office in Vass was learning about their new union. The men were entitled to become members and pay 2.5 percent of their weekly wages in dues


Bridging differences

State workers with the N.C. Department of Labor are supposed to inspect the 1,002 farms that received migrant workers this year. But with just four people to do those inspections, the state can’t visit every farm during the growing season, said Regina Luginbuhl, the bureau chief of the Agriculture Safety and Health division.

The task is an important one; the state last year cited 56 of the farms for safety and health violations.

That’s where union officials say they come in. Without their efforts supporting the field workers, they say, farmers would have little reason to provide basic needs .

Union representatives say they play the mediator between workers, the majority of whom only speak Spanish, and the state and the N.C. Growers Association.

Workers can call anyone in the union on their cell phone and find someone who answers in Spanish, including Leticia Zavala, the head of the union in the state. Not everyone is bilingual at the NCGA.

Lisie Montaño was one of two union workers assigned to the Triad for the season. The 24-year old from New York City, a former immigrant organizer, spent about 12 hours a day, six days a week visiting camps, she said. She visited up to four farms a day in a beat-up Honda Civic with a broken air conditioner.

On a day in mid-August that the News & Record spent with Montaño, she was called out to a farm in Stokes County where two workers said they wanted to go to the doctor.

Javier Sauza Cortes and Martin Nava Sebastian, both from Tlaxcala, Mexico, had been feeling nauseous for two weeks since they started pulling tobacco, and for two days they had been vomiting blood, they said. They tried explaining it to the owner of the farm but he did not understand, they said.

They wanted to go back to Mexico. But they wanted to leave with a guarantee.

“I want to come back,” said Cortes.

So did Sebastian, who couldn’t write out a statement saying he was leaving for medical purposes, which would give him the right to return. Montaño wrote it for him.





October 29, 2005



Publix punishes Ag-Mart

Florida growers that violate pesticide laws seldom get caught. When they do, the penalties usually aren't significant. So when the state assessed a record $111,200 fine against Ag-Mart Produce this month, it showed that Florida can get serious about compliance with laws that protect farmworkers.

Publix Super Markets assessed a harsher penalty, however, and made a stronger statement when it announced last week that none of its 866 stores will sell Ag-Mart's popular Santa Sweets grape tomato. A spokeswoman said that the chain "wanted to make sure the company is following the health and safety practices that Publix and its customers expect." Protecting consumers is essential, but farmworkers bear the worst risks and suffer the worst damage when growers violate pesticide rules. Corporate and individual buyers should punish producers who act irresponsibly by not buying their products.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services cited Ag-Mart for 88 counts of pesticide violations on two company farms, in Immokalee and Jennings. The department said Ag-Mart repeatedly violated strict harvesting and field reentry rules that require a seven-day waiting period before picking resumes after a pesticide application. Ag-Mart has been cited for pesticide violations in four previous cases, including one on the Immokalee farm, and North Carolina regulators have cited the company for 369 violations.

The fines, which Ag-Mart has challenged, are the result of a seven-month probe by state regulators that began after The Palm Beach Post reported the births of three deformed babies to Ag-Mart farmworkers in Immokalee. Health officials in Collier County released a report this month that found no likely link between the deformities and pesticides in the company's fields. Ag-Mart last month announced that it was voluntarily discontinuing the use of five pesticides with suspected links to birth defects. Other companies should switch to less toxic chemicals.

Though the cause of the defects remains inconclusive, investigators found that the three pregnant women reentered fields in Immokalee or Jennings too soon after the insecticide Monitor was applied. Monitor is one of the five chemicals Ag-Mart has stopped using. "What's upsetting to me," said Joan Colfer, director of the Collier County Health Department, "is they were allowed to work in the field when people were not following the (reentry) label instructions on the pesticides." Two of the women were exposed to the chemicals during critical gestational periods of their pregnancies. Ms. Colfer said her department has asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to conduct more sophisticated tests on the mothers.

Medical experts say it is always difficult to make the connection between pesticide exposure and specific birth defects. But it's conclusive that Ag-Mart ignored rules designed to protect workers at least 88 times. Considering the scope of the violations and the company's indifference toward safety, even a record fine doesn't seem enough.





October 26, 2005


For some, all lost

Hurricane Wilma wrecked crops in S. Fla., putting an already vulnerable population of impoverished migrant workers at risk.


Moises Gabriel, 50, tomato packer and long-distance dad, hadn't worked all week or eaten all day, and he wasn't sure how much longer he could afford the dank, cramped apartment he called home.

Like untold thousands of illegal workers who work the farm fields and packing houses of this struggling, rural town, Gabriel's livelihood was thrown into question by Hurricane Wilma, which, according to early reports, drowned tomato plants and toppled orange trees.



''Orange trees are lying in the soil, tomatoes are totally under water. The farms are damaged and crops ruined,'' said Adam Labra, an organizer with the Farmworker Association of Florida. Labra visited outlying farms around Immokalee on Tuesday and said farms in Clewiston, LaBelle, Naranja, Bonita Springs and Belle Glade were hurting, too. ``We're worried that thousands of laborers will be without work.''

The effects of a crippled agricultural industry in Southwest and Central Florida would not be limited to its workers. Gabriel, for one, is worried less about his own well-being than the survival of his wife and six children, who live in Oaxaca, Mexico, and rely entirely on the dollars he sends home each month.

''We heard the packing plant was destroyed, and if we run out of money, how will we eat?'' asked Gabriel. ``But I also have seven people to support, and they have nothing else.''

Hurricane Wilma raked Immokalee, ruining homes, downing power poles and clogging streets with trees and debris. The storm also came at a particularly bad time for the town's workers, who began returning by the thousands late last month for the fall tomato harvest.

The workers here -- mostly from Guatemala, Haiti and Mexico -- don't live paycheck to paycheck but day to day. The tomato season had barely begun, work was already thin, and hundreds were working only one or two days a week, at $45 a day. This means they had little extra to start with, let alone enough to see them through lean days or weeks caused by Hurricane Wilma.

On Tuesday, concerns over skimpy food supplies reverberated throughout town. Jean Raymond Beaucico, a tomato packer, said he was down to his last loaf of bread, his last $5, and had only corn meal left, which, because there was no power, he could not cook. Benjamin Juarez, 30, said he, his wife and their 5-year-old son ate nearly the last of their food in the shelter. They bought some charcoal and were grilling meat that hadn't spoiled.

''We had very little, and after this meat, nothing,'' his wife, Marisela Hernandez, 27, said. Stores were open, and long lines snaked out of them, but Juarez was reluctant to buy anything.

''This is all I have,'' he said, pulling a crumpled wad of bills, which totaled $12, out of his jeans pocket.

On Tuesday, no relief agencies were giving out meals or supplies, just water and ice, though authorities indicated that help is on the way. Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said the Mexican consulate in Miami is pressing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies to send help. Benitez said Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta, who visited Immokalee on Tuesday, said food should arrive today.


''That's our biggest concern, getting people water and something to eat,'' Benitez said.

Ten pallets of food arrived at a food bank Tuesday evening, and people lined up by the hundred to get a single bag of food each -- pinto beans, chicken broth, graham crackers and sports bars and water.

There are additional worries. Immokalee's housing stock was already substandard, with thousands of laborers living in disintegrating, patched-up trailers, which go for about $200 a week. Then Wilma's winds raged through, tearing the roofs off of flophouses, shifting ramshackle trailers off their moorings and slicing the walls off mobile homes.

A local high school has become a shelter for people who lost homes, but it is uncertain where displaced people could live next. It is too early to gauge Wilma's full impact on this town, or to determine how many people will be without work. Some hold out hope that farms will need help cleaning up or readying crops.

Albert Green, director of operations at 6 L's Packing Houses, said his plant was damaged but put as many to work as it could Tuesday, picking up debris and boxing remaining tomatoes.

''Our people are very important to us,'' Green said. ``Without them, we wouldn't be here.''

If there is no work, Gabriel, the long-distance father, and his friends plan to find their way to another state, to a place, they say, where a hurricane hasn't hit.







Sarasota/Manatee Farmworker Supporters


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