Farm owners make out like fat rats, Apopka farmwokers get short end of stick
Steve Schell
January 1999

The sale is over, and boy, did some people get some bargains. I'm talking about the State of Florida's auction, the largest in state history, of farm equipment which was obtained as a result of the buyout of the muck farms in the vicinity of Lake Apopka. (See Iguana, May/June 1998)

Back in the day, before muck farming and canal building, the lake was a popular destination for boaters, swimmers, and fishermen. The 1940s saw the beginning of the vast nutrient drain into the lake, bringing on the algae blooms and the beginning of the lake's demise. The drain came from the muck farms that were created on the borders of the lake by draining thousands of acres of marshland (done with state approval). The resultant lack of sunlight penetrating the surface meant no more submerged vegetation, no more fish. The 1950s brought an ill-fated attempt to restore the fish population by spraying the floating vegetation, but the dead vegetation was left to rot in the lake, further exacerbating the problem. Thereafter, the lake continued its decline, while the muck farms continued, with the state's sanctions, to dump polluted water into it.

The Florida Surface Water Improvement and Management Act (SWIM), passed in 1987, mandated the restoration of Lake Apopka and gave the responsibility for that action to the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD). In 1996, after much studying and planning and posturing, the legislature finally decided that it was time to get on with the clean up of Lake Apopka, which was still putrid-looking from all the muck farm runoff. To do this, the state implemented a program to buy out the farm owners and take possession of the land to restore it to the marsh it once was.

The plan was for the state to buy the farms and the equipment, then auction off the equipment as surplus in order to help raise funds to retrain the farmworkers impacted by restoration. The state paid nearly $100 million for the farms, and also purchased equipment appraised at nearly $30 million. The legislature had stipulated that no more than 20% of the money raised from the sale of the equipment would be used in retraining efforts. The state had hoped to get at least $6 million from the sale of equipment.

The reality is that, after SJRWMD kept over $2 million in equipment for its own use, the resulting auction only brought in $4.8 million. This means that less than $1 million will be available to help the farmworkers who were put out of work by this plan. But the kicker is the deals that the farm owners got. These same farm owners who were paid a handsome sum for their property and equipment, then spun around and bought their equipment back from the state at pennies on the dollar. Consider the case of Zellwin Farms, which was paid over $1 million for a specialized piece of equipment, and then bought it back for only $35,000. The owners of these farms aren't sweating it--they have operations in other places and will continue to do business while reaping huge windfalls from the State of Florida. It's the farmworkers who, as is usually the case, will be hurt the most.

These workers, most of them lifelong residents of the area, have already had to seek work at day labor pools, temporary services, or other agricultural jobs far from the Apopka area. These jobs pay minimum wage or little more, and offer no benefits. In many cases there isn't even work for every day of the week. The retraining funds provide for a small amount of cash and childcare and gas money. That's it. There is no paid training opportunity, which means that these workers cannot afford to seek training in other fields because they must work each day to continue to provide for themselves and their families. And these are the people whose hard work and low wages made the farmowners so rich.

What about the rest of the money from the sale? It will be split between Orange and Lake Counties and the city of Apopka. According to a statement by Friends of Lake Apopka, the funds will be used to "spur economic development in the region to reduce the negative effect of the farms' closings." How much of this 'economic development' do you suppose will benefit the displaced farmworkers?

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