State buys out farm owners, leaves out farmworkers
May/June 1998

It is one of Florida's untold news stories. Between now and June 30, close to 2000 workers in Central Florida will be permanently laid off. A $60-70 million industry will pull out and shut down, leaving a gaping hole in the economies of several communities, affecting families and neighborhood businesses. Yet there is no media brouhaha over the loss of jobs and the impacts on the economy. Perhaps the media's disinterest has to do with the fact that the workers in question are not Lockheed-Martin, NASA, AT&T, or Disney employees. Perhaps it is because the workers are unseen, unacknowledged, forgotten. Perhaps it is because the workers are farmworkers--brown, black, tan, olive-skinned, and low-income whites--who the agricultural industry has successfully lobbied to keep powerless and poor and quiet. Who ever thinks about the real people that make it possible for us to buy the carrots, celery, radishes, corn, and other vegetables that we put on our tables. Where are the environmentalists with their bumper stickers proclaiming "Make the Polluter Pay"? No, the details behind the Lake Apopka "clean-up" are some of Florida's best-kept secrets.

Just northwest of the Orlando/Disney metropolis lies Florida's fourth largest and most polluted lake. The condition of Lake Apopka had been the topic of much discussion for years, until finally in 1996, Florida lawmakers passed legislation calling for the purchase of the 13 farms on the north shore of the lake that have been blamed for the majority of the lake's pollution problems. And they allocated $20 million of taxpayer dollars toward that end. The St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) was charged with undertaking the purchase of these vegetable muck farms. The asking price was $95 million. SJRWMD went looking for more money and found $26 million from the federal Wetlands Reserve in the middle of the state! Everglades clean up and sugar farmers have gotten a lot of press, but where is the noise over Lake Apopka? Maybe there's been silence because the Lake Apopka clean-up was a political decision and not truly an environmental one. And 2000 mostly low-income, ethnic minority, people of color are easy to ignore.

The reality is that farm owners that got prime agricultural land (formerly lake bottom that had been drained and diked to expose the rich, muck soil) for pennies during WWII to produce crops during the war effort are getting bailed out. Unlike sugar farmers in the Everglades, that the Florida voters agreed should be made to be part of the solution to their pollution, these farmers are getting paid to close up shop and go away. Not a bad deal for complaining too much that it was too difficult and too expensive to meet the regulatory guidelines for nutrient run-off into the lake. The "environmental" group that had a strong voice in pushing for the buy-out of the farms has, what could be construed to be, a special interest. Several of the key people on the Board of Directors have real estate holdings in the area of the lake that could prove to be very lucrative when a restored Lake Apopka brings recreation and increased development to the surrounding area (which will also lead to more runoff).

Cleaning up the lake is not the only issue here. Factor in that cultivated land in Florida has been decreasing by 5% since NAFTA was passed. At this rate, in 20 years, there will be no more cultivated land in the state. Most of that agriculture in moving the Mexico, Central and South America where the environmental laws are lax and where US companies ship pesticides that have been banned here. What does that do to the safety of our food supply? What about exploitation of labor in these poverty-stricken countries? Are we, in fact, cleaning up Lake Apopka only to export our pollution and contamination across the border?

But, let's get back to the farmworkers who have helped to feed us. What do they get for the years of work, sweat, time and energy they have put into these farms-for the days in the fields exposed to heat and sun, rain and cold, biting insects and pesticides. These people have depended on farm work to make a living to feed themselves and their families, to put clothes on their backs and a roof over their heads. In its great beneficence, the state allocated $200,000 in 1996 toward retraining of the labor force impacted by the buyout. The 1997 legislation devised a cute little formula tying remedial help to the sale of farm equipment. This means that, along with farmland that the state is purchasing, the equipment, buildings, and improvements are, also, part of the buyout package. Taxpayer money is being used to purchase very specialized farm equipment that the state will turn around and try to sell--at an expected loss, no less, of taxpayers' hard-earned dollars. The formula goes like this: 60% of the money from the sale of farm equipment will go to Orange County; 25% to the City of Apopka; and 15% to Lake County. Of these percentages, no more than 20% can (not must or will, but can) be used for labor force retraining. The projected proceeds from the equipment sale is between $5-15 million. This money is not only too little, it will come too late! And, what guarantees are there that the money will be used to help farmworkers?

So, who are these farmworkers? Won't they just move on to pick crops in some other place or state? Defying common misconceptions, a large percentage of the Lake Apopka farmworkers call this area home. The highly productive vegetable farms produce a rotating series of crops that keeps them operating as much as nine months of the year. This has resulted in a labor force that has established roots in the community. There are farmworkers born and raised in this area whose lives and histories are tied to the farms. Many others have moved here, put down roots, started and raised families, developed a social network of friends and relatives, and some are even making mortgage payments on homes they are buying. Even those who travel to Texas for work during the summer months, have their children enrolled in area schools and had planned on a future for themselves in Central Florida. Their population is diverse, including Haitians and African-Americans, with a majority being Hispanic. Women make up some 40% of the workforce. And women stand to be more severely impacted, as job alternatives for unskilled women workers generally consist of minimum wage service industry jobs with little or no benefits and often offering only part time hours. Job alternatives for men are a bit more promising. There is always construction, mechanical, warehouse work or other work that offers more of a livable wage. Moreover, many farmworkers are without reliable transportation and have limited access to affordable child care. Some live in labor camps that will close when the farms do. Others live in subsidized housing that require a certain amount of annual income to be from farm work. What will happen to these people is anyone's guess.

Furthermore, lawmakers apparently failed to see the irony that with one stroke of the pen they were instituting welfare-to-work programs to get people off the public dole, while with another sweeping stroke, they became responsible for the massive unemployment of traditionally hardworking productive people. While extolling the virtues of family values, they voted for legislation that is sure to cause the splitting up of extended families and even husbands and wives as men leave home in search of work.

Unlike NASA, AT&T, or Lockheed-Martin employees, farmworkers cannot expect severance pay or bonuses, do not have pension plans or even savings to fall back on. The tragedy is, due to the bogus procedure adopted for calculating unemployment compensation, some will not even qualify. Farm flooding and tornado damage early in 1998 destroyed crops and resulted in a less than banner final season of production. During what would normally have been the height of the season, farmworkers often found themselves working short days or not at all because the carrot and radish crops had been reduced due to the weather. The small communities that lie to the north in Disney's devouring shadow could be looking down the barrel of a gun that is about to go off. Crime, child and spouse abuse, alcoholism, and delinquency generally increase with the rate of unemployment and lack of opportunity. Local government has been slow, at best, to make any attempts to deal with these potential problems.

Finally, there is another lurking issue whose effects may not be felt until the next generation. Lake Apopka's pea-green soup condition is the result of fifty years of agricultural pesticide and fertilizer runoff, municipal waste dumping, and, most significantly, a pesticide spill in 1980 that has left a Superfund site sitting dangerously close to the lake. A study by the University of Florida discovered severe reproductive problems, altered hormone levels, and mutated sexual organs in alligators on the lake. It has become a part of an unfolding picture whose pieces were first put together in a book entitled Our Stolen Future. This is the story of the increasing evidence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in our environment from a variety of unnatural sources that is linked to health effects experienced by both humans and wildlife. The concern has prompted the EPA to set up a special independent task force to develop criteria for undertaking a concerted study into the composition, nature and the identification of these chemicals. It is of such concern that the SJRWMD has hired a toxicologist and has tailored its lake restoration plan to accommodate monitoring of flooded farmlands for harmful contaminants.

And, what about the people? Those who either worked or lived in close proximity to the lake? Who has undertaken a study of the effects on the health of these people? Time is running out. The farms will soon be closed and the farmworkers will then be scattered. Health effects in workers or their children will take years to show up. By then, it will be difficult, if not impossible to determine their cause. And, conveniently, no one will be around to assume responsibility.

Though the picture is a disturbing one, the Farmworker Association of Florida is furiously working to inform, organize, and assist farmworkers impacted by the buyout. Local meetings, personal contact, collaboration with agencies are all part of the effort to minimize the hardship for those to be laid off. It has been a two-year battle and the most difficult part is yet to come. It's the faces of the families, it is the uncertainty and confusion in their eyes, it is the looking into the unknown face of the future...A clean lake, yes, but at what cost? Let's hope that in the future, we will be able to align environmental and labor groups to form a coalition that will forge strong bonds for just and sound solutions.

For more information on this situation and the Farmworker Association of Florida, call (407) 886-5151.

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