Farmers struggle to keep the food chain that feeds America going. The #2 industry in Florida is falling apart with no government support. We spent two days with 11 growers in what they call their “fields of dreams.” This is what we learned.
Video and photos via Keyvan Antonio Heydari.
Independent farmer and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) recipient Erwin Hernández Flores knows he and his crew of 11 workers are invisible to most Americans. He is one of almost two million farmers in the country. As he points to the field behind him, he salvages green beans off the vines and reflects: “I don’t know if right now I’m a farmer or a beggar. I’ve got $30,000 — my life savings — invested and I have to pay workers, pesticide, and transport.” Yet as an immigrant businessman, he most likely doesn’t qualify for any of the aid packages coming from Washington.
The Coronavirus Stimulus Bill passed by Congress on March 30 is expected to relieve the struggle of farmers across the country. A portion of the $23.5 billion approved is supposed to include direct deposits to farmers and rancheros like Erwin. But the distribution of these funds is yet to be determined by the Department of Agriculture.
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Erwin fears he won’t see any of that relief money any time soon. His Dreamer status puts him in a unique bracket of people (700,000, approximately, according to the Department of Homeland Security) that have a permit to work and are under the color of law in the U.S. but are noncitizens. With the Coronavirus Stimulus Bill only a few states, such as California have made it official to include people like Erwin so they can apply for cash-based benefits, or the so-called $1,200 check, Vox explains.
According to the stimulus bill, as a small business owner, Erwin might be eligible to apply to unemployment, should his sales continue to drop. But farms with 50 employees or less may not be able to benefit from the Coronavirus Bill provisions, such as paid sick leave.
As of today, Governor DeSantis hasn’t confirmed whether or not Florida will follow California’s steps to ensure farmworkers like Erwin can benefit from the stimulus bill.
Trump has claimed to have farmers in mind with the Stimulus Plan approved by Congress. Yet, farmers advocates worry that this time smaller operations like Erwin’s will be underserved—similar to what happened with the two previous trade bailouts of 2017 and 2019.
While some Democrats successfully found ways to include farmers into relief bills in few states, such as, California, Iowa, and New York, Florida seems to be falling behind in showing their support to the people that grow the food Americans eat.
Erwin is a native of Oaxaca, Mexico and has been working in farming in the U.S. for almost a decade. He leases a plot in South Florida and employs 11 “rancheros,” including several women, one of them, his own wife. Together, they grow green beans, Thai eggplant, cabbage, tomatoes, and other vegetables from dawn until dusk, every day of the week. Due to the coronavirus epidemic many of his usual customers — like restaurants and hotels — have closed operations.
Big farms in Florida, such as DiMare Tomato Company, who have a nationwide operation with farms in California, Pennsylvania, and Florida, have been giving away their products because they can’t sell it, the Miami Herald reports. Restaurants also had to shut overnight, which hit Florida’s economy hard. The food and beverage industry generates more than $50 billion a year and employs 12% of the population in the Sunshine State.
Needless to say, Erwin is worried. “Maybe Trump has eaten our beans or serves them at his club or hotels,” he reflects. “I have a company. I’ve been paying my taxes for almost ten years now. I have to get my money out of this or leave the food in the fields, and next year I can’t farm again. And people won’t have food.”
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Growing Pains Are Real
For Erwin, it is simpler than that. He and his 11 workers grow the top three fruits and vegetables that drive Florida’s agriculture economy — according to the USDA — in his leased plot in Homestead. And farming is the second largest industry in the state. Yet, they struggle to get on the radar. To be included in times of crisis like these.
As an immigrant, the 29-year-old farmer recognizes that he wouldn’t be able to give his family the life they deserve back in Mexico if it wasn’t for this country. “For better or worse — America is filled with opportunities,” he said. “If you work hard, you overcome obstacles and have good results.”
What does it take to be considered an essential worker during a pandemic? This question keeps Erwin up at night. For him and his team, the work they do is essential.
Feeding the people of Florida is essential. It’s what they love and the reason they can bring food to their own tables. “But I’m begging people to buy what I grow. Do you think this doesn’t hurt? To see how the food goes to waste? Here’s where we need money, an injection of money. The stores already have a bunch of money. We don’t.”
When asked about his first impression upon arrival to U.S. soil as a 15-year-old, 14 years ago, Erwin says he clearly remembers the night in 2006 that he arrived in Georgia to start his new life in the U.S. “I slept and woke up the next morning to start working. I was full of dreams, exhausted but ready to make them a reality.”
How does a day in Erwin’s life look like now that he is a business man?
His day starts around 5 a.m. He wakes up to have breakfast and gets ready to drive to his field with his wife Yolanda Hernández, whom he married three years ago. Since the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the Sunshine State, he spends his mornings trying to get his product off the vine and to market before it all rots.
Before the coronavirus came to town, Erwin would work long hours too. But he knew his products would sell and all the physical effort would pay off in the end. That financial stress — for a once prosperous business — is now also part of his 10-hour shifts. His crew gets in the van at dawn and drives miles to get to the plot. They pick for four hours, stop for a quick lunch — papaya from the previous day’s pickings — and then continue until dusk.
“I would like the people in power to come here and walk with us. I would like our government representatives to come out here, and see what we do, even if just for an hour,” he says. “At noon, under the sun. To understand the suffering, the work we do.”
It was our second day documenting the farmers toiling in a hellish South Florida — with the hottest days of the year and 94-degree weather in spring. Erwin stopped picking and his smile disappears, as he decides to share more of his frustration. To stress his argument, he points to the ground “I love to do this. There’s got to be [aid] money coming here. For the farmworkers, to the fields. Not just the stores and supermarkets. Publix [supermarkets] doesn’t need it. We do. Trump has to worry about this. Everybody has to worry about this. Because this takes work; This takes money. We’re leaving all this food behind on the field. Publix has the money, but they don’t grow anything. They are just buyers. They buy papayas for $5 and make $50 out of them.”
Erwin is not shy when it comes to sharing how he feels about the lack of response from Trump to the people he has claimed to care about while campaigning. “Trump has to be worried about this. Everyone should be worried about this. This should be top of mind, a priority. Because food comes from this soil. And without farmers, there is no food! But not many care about this. In a few months, many farmers will cease to exist. And then people will say ‘Oh I miss those beans’ but the person who grew them doesn’t anymore. Why? Cause we went bankrupt!”
The Risk of Contagion and Scant Protections During the Pandemic
It is grueling for the pickers in Florida, most of the time in proximity to other workers. Erwin pays $9 an hour. He and the crew of 11 people — a mix of Mexicans and Guatemalans — go from field to field, to pick what they planted weeks ago. Tomatoes and beans are left behind on the fields as they labor from sunup until sundown.
Workers in packing houses in the food industry supply chain operate in reduced spaces as well, and worker advocates fear a novel coronavirus entry into the food supply chain could be cataclysmic to the workers, and by extension to the population.
The 11 workers at Erwin’s farm get on a bus every day to drive to and from the fields. Social distancing is nearly impossible for this line of work.
It wasn’t until April 2 that the local government declared farmers “essential workers.” For Erwin’s workers that term may be a given, but the federal government seemed to have overlooked this crucial group of people during the pandemic. Farmers already earn the lowest wages in most states (average of $10 an hour) and are not eligible for paid sick leave.
In California, for instance, farmers have been given a letter that states their “essential” status in case they are stopped by an immigration officer, The New York Times reports. Some advocates estimate that 75% of the workers in California are undocumented and most likely, of Mexican origin. But the most recent U.S.D.A data states that less than 50% of the workforce is undocumented.
In Erwin’s case, when it comes to health insurance coverage, he explains that “we don’t really have any [health care]. Every person goes to the clinic they can afford or prefer on their own. People take sick days if needed to go get checked. But I need to continue to come here to the field and check my harvest. I don’t have that luxury even if I’m sick. People think “oh he is fine cause he owns the land. If you only knew our reality as farmers!”
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Many of the workers normally toil under the sun in sweaters, scarves, and hats, and they often live and travel together in close quarters. Now they are ramping up some in protective measures: covering their faces more, wearing gloves. Usually, they have scant access to health care, and many speak native languages like Quiché (Guatemala) better than Spanish. In general, their attitude about COVID-19 is “Que será, será.”
“I’m a little scared,” says Vanessa, from Tamaulipas, Mexico. “We’re working here so food can get to the store and the people. If they knew our situation they would help us. If I get sick I won’t be able to work.”
The precarious health care situation farmers deal with in South Florida is not exclusive to the region. In Immokalee in Central Florida — another popular vegetable-growing region — Florida Farmworkers Association offices (FWAF) advocate Lucas Benítez says, “We don’t have a hospital within 50 miles, and if the farmworkers get the virus it will be like wood ready for a fire.” FWAF has a four-point proposal asking for COVID-19 testing, a clinic, PPE for workers and public relief.
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What Politics Has to Do With It?
Erwin is not afraid to talk politics and has a broad understanding of how the Trump administration policies affect him. While he is not familiar with who represents his district in Congress — in spite of the fact that she is of Ecuadorian origin — he knows there has been a rhetorical war on immigrants that marks Trump’s presidency. Now that the COVID-19 threat is a reality, he is planning for the day he can vote.
“I would vote for someone who understands suffering. I will vote for someone who knows what we are going through here. I will vote for someone who could come down here and spend one hour with the farmers,” he says. “Just for one hour at noon. Under the heat. Someone who would wear this shirt, this hat and come to talk to us without rushing. Someone who could see how much we are suffering and realize what we are all about.”
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On Good Friday, the federal administration announced they will offer a package of at least $16 billion in aid for farmers, with a possible announcement this week. The coronavirus relief bill passed last month includes $23.5 billion for farmers.
On the other hand, Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried told CBS News’ Jim DeFede that with the collapse of the tourism economy, agriculture and farming in Florida will now become its main industry. The Commissioner also openly accused Gov. Ron DeSantis of “him being wrong will cost thousands of lives and hurt our economy. I don’t know why it took him so long [to enact stay-at-home rules]. We have been trying to get a one-on-one meeting with the governor for almost a year now. But when all of this went down, I reached out again and no response … I wanted to be updated. We weren’t getting briefings as a cabinet of what was happening.” Fried is in charge of all the food supply and feeding students in schools and food banks, as well as agriculture in Florida.
NPR’s Franco Ordóñez reported farm lobbyists to want the Trump administration to lower their costs and wages for agricultural workers and immigrants on H2A visas. That means, the farmers would get more, but the farmworkers will get less. The roughly 2.5 percent of the nation’s farmworkers don’t have lobbyists, but they do have advocates. Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of (Center for Immigration Studies) said to Ordóñez, “The point is to cheapen the labor.”
What Being on the Radar Would Look Like
As a farmer and a concerned citizen, Erwin thinks the solution to the agriculture problem in Florida may lie in the hands of politicians. To better understand his struggle to qualify for the Coronavirus Relief Aid, The Americano spoke to the Executive Director Florida Farmer Workers Federal Association, Antonio Tovar. “[Farmers] can’t be a union or sindicato by law. That has a domino effect. It lowers the salary [and benefits] for everyone. It’s completely unfair. Farmworkers already make the lowest in the nation. We tried to contact our representatives Rick Scott and Marco Rubio. They haven’t responded,” Tovar told The Americano.
When asked about why politicians are important for his success, Erwin seems to have a few things to say. “When Mr. Trump became president, I immediately knew something about him: He doesn’t know what suffering is about. Because someone who’s never suffered, can’t appreciate what’s valuable, what really matters in life.”
His sentiment was echoed by some of his workers who expressed how they look up to Erwin and consider him a smart man. “When you know to suffer, what it is like to be tired, what it’s like to have your hands hurting halfway through your workday here on the fields. All of my guys are already tired by noon. Their feet, their hands …”
But who does Erwin look up to in politics?
“To me, Trump lives in ignorance. But he could learn if he were to open his eyes. He could be an exemplary president in every aspect if he decided to stop producing fear, promoting fear. He produces hatred and terror. I would vote for a president that leads with humility. Someone, I can say WOW!”
As farmers, Erwin is used to the question “why not getting a job in an office, away from the heat?” His answer is always the same: “Here’s where I’m happy. This is my life. What I ask for is that we are valued a bit more. When I arrived at Homestead, my first boss was an American. One of those with a big compassionate heart. Even though he was born with money. That man helped us so much! His farm of 200 acres was producing a ton. But the price of tomatoes went down to $5 a box [when the economic downfall for farmers that started in 2017]. He went bankrupt. I just don’t want to have the same luck.”