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April 2010 Volume 16 Number 2

Florida: CIW, Oranges, Sugar


Tomatoes. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has targeted buyers of Florida tomatoes since the early 1990s, trying to persuade them to require the growers of the mature green slicing tomatoes used in fast-food sandwiches to pay their pickers an additional penny a pound (mature green tomatoes are gassed to turn them red). Most growers pay pickers $0.40 to $0.45 per 32-pound bucket; according to the CIW, the piece rate has not changed for a decade.

After the CIW organized boycotts, fast-food chains beginning with Yum Brands (Taco Bell) began to sign agreements with the CIW offering their suppliers an additional 1.5 cents a pound for tomatoes, with one cent for pickers and a half cent for the administrative costs involved in making the payments to workers. However, major Florida growers refused to implement the CIW-fast food chain agreements, and the extra 1.5 cents accumulated in escrow; about $2 million was in escrow for tomato pickers at the end of 2009.

In September 2009, East Coast Brokers and Packers resigned from the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange and signed an agreement with Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. and the CIW. Chipotle agreed to pay an extra 1.5 cents for Florida tomatoes, and East Coast agreed to increase tomato picker piece rates by a cent a pound.

In February 2010, the FTGE announced that its members could sign three-party agreements raising picker wages as demanded by the CIW under a new Social Accountability Program (www.floridatomatogrowers.org). The FTGE said that its 16 members, who produce most US mature green tomatoes from December through April, would commit themselves to a Florida Tomato Grower Code of Conduct and could sign agreements with tomato buyers that require higher piece rates for tomato pickers. It is not clear if FTGE growers will continue to reject the agreements reached between the CIW and fast-food chains.

Under the FTGE proposal, tomato buyers could provide a weekly "supplemental wage" payment to the grower, who would distribute the payment to workers minus a 15 percent overhead in proportion to the hours worked by each worker that week. FTGE said it would be impossible to pay pickers an extra penny a pound only when they picked tomatoes destined for McDonald's.

The FTGE Code of Conduct pledges that growers will abide by existing laws, that is, pay minimum wages, not use forced labor, and abide by anti-discrimination laws. The CIW aimed to go beyond having growers abide by existing laws; it wanted to use its leverage with tomato buyers to improve the wages and benefits of farm workers employed by growers who produce tomatoes.

The retailer in the spotlight in spring 2010 is Publix, a 1,000-store supermarket chain headquartered in Lakeland, Florida. The CIW has been urging a boycott of Publix until it signs an agreement pledging to raise the prices it pays to the growers of the tomatoes it sells so that those growers can raise the piece rate wages of pickers by a cent a pound; the CIW organized a march from Tampa Bay to Lakeland in April 2010. In April 2010, ARAMARK agreed to pay an additional 1.5 cents a pound for Florida tomatoes.

Florida had freezing weather in January 2010, which raised the grower price of tomatoes from about $0.25 a pound to $1 a pound (tomatoes are sold in 25-pound cartons). Florida produces a third of the fresh vegetables such as tomatoes in the winter months; the other two-thirds are imported, usually from Mexico. The freeze did not cause as much damage as freezes in 1983 and 1984.

Oranges. Florida has 400,000 acres of oranges that yield 140 million 90-pound boxes of fruit that is processed into juice (about 350 boxes per acre). About 20,000 workers hand harvest most of these oranges. Most work 1,500 hours during the 33-week harvest. In 2009, about 36,000 acres and almost 10 million boxes of oranges were mechanically harvested.

The mechanization of the Florida orange harvest highlights the importance of a systems approach involving both biology and engineering. It is not enough to develop mechanical harvesters with rotating spindles that knock ripe oranges off of trees and into a catching frame to be conveyed to trailers that haul the oranges to processors. The trees must be planted for mechanical harvesting; smaller trees planted close together with rows wide enough to accommodate the machines are best. Current machines harvest 75 to 80 percent of available oranges, a fruit recovery rate that engineers seek to increase so that growers do not send hand crews after the machines.

The major challenge to harvesting oranges mechanically is that Valencia orange trees also include the next year's fruit on the tree. http://citrusmh.ifas.ufl.edu/index.asp) This immature fruit can be removed by machines harvesting ripe oranges, lowering future yields. The abscission chemical CMNP loosens ripe fruit sufficiently so that immature fruit is not removed by the machine's shaking of the tree and limb. If the EPA approves use of CMNP, orange harvest mechanization could speed up.

Orange harvesting in 2010 is analogous to harvesting processing-tomatoes in the mid-1960s. In the tomato case, the incentive to mechanize was the end of the Bracero program in 1964. Researchers developed a uniformly ripening tomato and engineers designed a once-over harvester that cut the tomato stalk and shook the ripe tomatoes from the vines. Hand and eventually electronic sorters checked the harvested tomatoes before they were conveyed to trailers that held two 12.5 ton tubs.

The federal and state governments played critical direct and indirect roles in spurring processing-tomato mechanization. Ending the Bracero program was accompanied by federal and state research funding for labor-saving mechanization. Processors made adjustments to handle large loads of mechanically harvested fruit, which arrived with more debris than hand-harvested tomatoes.

A key governmental role involved sampling harvested tomatoes to determine their quality and price. Processors pay growers by weight, about four cents a pound in recent years, so that rejecting a 60-pound lug meant a $2.40 loss to the grower. However, rejecting a 12.5 ton tub of tomatoes meant a $1,000 loss, prompting the state government to establish stations at which random samples of tomatoes were taken to determine their quality. Without these since-privatized stations, tomato harvest mechanization would likely not have gone from one to 100 percent between 1960 and 1970.

Sugar. Producing sugar cane south of Lake Okeechobee and north of the Everglades National Park results in run off that damages the Everglades "sea of grass." To protect the Everglades, Florida's state government in June 2008 announced plans to spend $1.75 billion to buy almost 200,000 acres of land from United States Sugar. The recession reduced the amount of land the state could purchase to six disconnected parcels; the purchase was scheduled to close March 31, 2010.

US Sugar determined what land to sell to the state, and elected to sell all its citrus acreage, where trees were damaged by canker, rather than its sugar cane land, which is most useful to restore the flow of fresh water into the Everglades. Furthermore, the state paid far more for US Sugar's orange orchards, $7,000 an acre, than they were worth in 2009, about $4,000 an acre. As a result, money that could have completed a reservoir in western Palm Beach county was instead promised to US Sugar.

The 16-county South Florida Water Management District is in charge of Everglades restoration, but it does not have the estimated $12 billion needed to implement the clean up. The New York Times reported that, after US Sugar's debts climbed sharply, US Sugar approached the state to sell its land. The state agreed to the high purchase price on the basis of appraisals that reflected land values from earlier years; the high cost of US Sugar land stopped construction of the reservoir.

Competitor Florida Crystals labeled the US Sugar-Florida deal a taxpayer-supported buyout of US Sugar; an independent evaluation of the sale also concluded that the state overpaid for US Sugar land.

Wishnatzki. Gary Wishnatzki of Wishnatzki Farms received the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association's Plate of Bounty Award in February 2010. Wishnatzki organized the Pro Am Tennis tournament, which raised $80,000 for the Immokalee-based Redlands Christian Migrant Association.

Don Van Natta Jr. and Damien Cave, "Deal to Save Everglades May Help Sugar Firm," New York Times, March 7, 2010. Doug Ohlemeier, "Florida tomato industry changes position on farmworker pay," The Packer, February 16, 2010.
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