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January 2008, Volume 14, Number 1

Florida: Tomatoes, Citrus

After marches and boycotts, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers persuaded Yum Brands (Taco Bell) in 2005 and McDonald's USA in 2007 to require the Florida growers who sell tomatoes to these fast-food chains to raise the wage they pay pickers by one cent a pound, increasing the piece rate from 40 to 45 cents to 70 to 75 cents for each 32-pound bucket.

Under the agreements, Yum Brands paid the growers the extra penny a pound (about $150,000 in 2006-07) and ensured that workers received the extra pay. McDonald's was to begin doing so in 2007-08; its costs were estimated at $250,000.

Two Florida growers participated in the Taco Bell agreement, but the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange in November 2007 announced that its grower-members, who produce 90 percent of Florida's tomatoes, would not honor the agreements between the CIW and Taco Bell and McDonald's during the 2007-08 season. The FTGE called the agreements "un-American," and said that its members were concerned about "federal and state laws related to antitrust, labor and racketeering."

The FTGE said that grower members who paid the extra penny could face fines of $100,000, although antitrust experts said it is more likely that FTGE members were violating antitrust laws by preventing growers from selling to buyers who set conditions on worker pay. The Yum and McDonald's agreements have been suspended during the 2007-08 season.

FTGE members formed SAFE, Socially Accountable Farm Employers, in 2005. It audits employer treatment of farm workers, and nine of Florida's 12 major tomato farms have earned SAFE certification. The FTGE says that workers earned an average $12.46 an hour picking tomatoes in 2006-07, up from $12.26 an hour in 2005-06.

The CIW is urging a boycott of Burger King until it also agrees to have the growers of its tomatoes pay harvesters an extra one cent a pound. Hundreds of protestors marched nine miles from a Goldman Sachs office in Miami to Burger King headquarters on November 30, 2007; Goldman Sachs is one of three private equity firms that holds a large stake in Burger King.

Burger King says it cannot agree with the CIW demands because it does not employ farm workers: "How do we pay workers and not have that worker be our employee? I don't think we want to be in a position of paying workers we have no control over." Burger King, which says it buys about 25 million pounds of Florida tomatoes a year, donated $25,000 to the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which provides services to the children of farm workers.

Author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) in a November 29, 2007 New York Times Op-ed, criticized Burger King, noting that it is mostly owned by three private equity firms that paid their executives large bonuses.

Citrus. In 2006-07, about 35,600 acres and 8.3 million boxes of oranges were harvested mechanically, up from 31,700 acres the year before Most of the mechanically harvested oranges are in the southwestern part of the state, which has about a quarter of the state's orange acreage.

On-tree orange prices were a record $9.18 in 2006/07, up from $5.51 a box a year earlier, largely because production fell to only 129 million boxes due to hurricane damage in 2004 and 2005, especially from Hurricane Wilma in 2005; orange production is expected to rebound to 200 million boxes in 2007/08. Growers received as much as $2.40 per-pound-solid for fruit at processing plants in 2006/07; one pound of solids makes a gallon of juice.

Growers produced another 33 million boxes of grapefruit and other citrus, for a total of 162 million boxes. The farm value of Florida's citrus crop in 2006/07 was $1.4 billion, up sharply from $1 billion the previous year; the orange crop was worth $1.2 billion.

Florida has 600,000 acres of citrus, and 40 percent is owned by 15 large growers, led by Consolidated Citrus LP in Fort Myers, with 50,000 acres; Lykes Bros. in Tampa with 40,000 acres; Southern Gardens Citrus Processing in Clewiston (U.S. Sugar), with 30,000; and Ben Hill Griffin of Frostproof with 16,000 acres.

Tri-Ben Groves in Polk county failed in January 2008 to win approval to build dorms to house up to 132 H-2A orange pickers who would have worked 48 hours a week. Local residents holding "No Labor Camp" signs reported fears of alcohol abuse among solo men in an area with single family homes.

Tri-Ben belongs to the Winter Haven-based Bentley Brothers, and hired 95 H-2A workers in 2006-07. They were housed around the area in rented quarters.

Citrus canker, which causes the leaves and fruit of citrus trees to drop prematurely, was discovered in Florida in 1995, leading to the removal of 840,000 backyard trees, those infected and those within 1,900 feet of an infected tree. The state of Florida compensated homeowners with a $100 Wal-Mart gift card for the first tree removed and $55 in cash for subsequent trees. Hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 spread the canker, and class-action suits filed by homeowners are working their way through Florida courts, with homeowners demanding additional compensation.

In January 2008, two workers sued a Miami-Dade County bean grower for allegedly paying workers less than the minimum wage when they failed to earn enough under piece rates and not forwarding Social Security taxes to the government. Florida Legal Services said that the grower did not keep proper records, making it hard to estimate back wages, which could exceed $1 million.

Sugar. The US Supreme Court let stand an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that a driver who delivered fuel to equipment was engaged in activities incidental to farming, was a farm worker, and was not entitled to overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which excludes farm workers. Employee Sariol argued that, since he drove a truck that provided fuel to storage tanks as well as to machinery it was nonfarm activity.

The leading case on the farm versus nonfarm issue is Farmers Reservoir & Irrigation Co. v. McComb, 337 U.S. 755 (1949), which held that workers are employed by a cooperative association, not the farmers who create and own it.

Everglades. Restoring the Florida Everglades is the most world's most extensive environmental restoration project, expected to cost $8 billion and take from 2000 to 2040; Florida and the US governments are to share the costs. The project aims to restore the flow of water that created the river of grass by releasing water from man-made Lake Okeechobee, and replacing that water with more storage.

Farmers missed a phosphorus reduction target for the first time in 11 years in 2007, despite the state postponing enforcement of strict pollution limits at the behest of the sugar industry until 2016.

Steven Greenhouse, "Tomato Pickers' Wages Fight Faces Obstacles," New York Times, December 24, 2007. Elaine Walker, "Activists protest Burger King," Miami Herald, December 1, 2007. Mike Hughlett, "McDonald's farmworker raise fought by growers," Chicago Tribune, November 6, 2007. Kevin Bouffard, "Growers' Windfall," The Ledger, July 30, 2007.

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