Risking Death for Tomatoes

Source: The Bitter Southerner

When Maria Silva and her family move into a new home, she always cleans the place thoroughly, making it their own. It’s a ritual she has down to a science — Silva and her four children move an average of four times a year with Maria’s husband, Angel Espinoza, who works on the tomato farms and in the packing houses that dot the East Coast. This year, Silva would be extra diligent, disinfecting the place from top to bottom. She wanted to slow down, to follow the advice she heard on the news and shelter in place, but she couldn’t.

“Even though we’re living in fear, we have to keep moving because he has to keep providing,” she said.

Migrant tomato farmers like Silva and Espinoza follow a seasonal path northward in Florida. Usually, they’ll start harvesting in Immokalee in the late spring and move up to Gadsden County as the weather warms in June. After the first picking season is done, some will return to Immokalee or stay in Gadsden to start the crops for the fall. Many, though, will continue their trek northward to farms in Tennessee and North Carolina. As the weather starts to cool, they’ll move back south to pick the fall crop in Quincy, returning to Immokalee by late October.

While workers usually move according to the growing season, this year their work patterns sync up all too well with COVID-19. When Espinoza started working in the fields in Immokalee in May, cases of COVID-19 in Collier County were just starting to rise. Deemed essential workers, the laborers continued to work shoulder-to-shoulder on the farms and in cramped packing houses, even as the case count in Immokalee continued to tick up. By June, the Immokalee zip code had more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19. A month later, that number had doubled.

“Calling us ‘essential workers’ didn’t do anything to protect our health,” said Nely Rodriguez, a former farm worker in Immokalee.

Rodriguez, who now works at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization focused on improving working conditions for farm laborers in Immokalee, said that conditions on the farms and in the packed trailers the workers rent from the farmers were perfect places for infections to break out. The CIW pressured the state government to send additional tests, formed educational programs and reached out to farmers to implement social distancing measures. But poor healthcare infrastructure and apathy from Tallahassee meant that help came too little and too late.

“The testing came late, and it only came because we pushed for it,” said Rodriguez. “We’re always last on the list when it comes to healthcare services.”

For workers who got sick, the situation was even more dire. Immokalee, which has a population of around 25,000 during harvesting season, doesn’t have its own hospital. The closest hospital — 45 minutes away in Naples — was already close to filling its ICU beds. There’s a small clinic in town, but it doesn’t have doctors that specialize in communicable diseases or access to ventilators.

Luckily, Espinoza, Silva and their children made it through spring and summer without getting sick. In early June, when the fields had been picked through and the tomatoes packed, the family packed up their belongings and drove the length of the state to Gadsden County, where Espinoza would spend the next two months picking the spring crop and preparing the fields for the fall.

Sitting on the border between two states and two time zones, Gadsden is a county permanently held in abeyance. Quincy, the largest town in Gadsden County, is an incongruent mix of sights and smells. On the drive into town, the bright colors of the town’s Mexican grocery store fade into abandoned storefronts and aging Victorian homes, relics of Quincy’s 19th century origins as a center of tobacco production.

When I arrived in Quincy at the end July, Graves Williams was gearing up for the fall harvest. If I had come looking to see the fields in action, he said, I was days too late. Just a few weeks earlier, hundreds of workers had made their way from Immokalee to Williams’ five tomato farms to harvest the summer crop. Now most of those workers had continued their journey northward and the fields were empty, scattered with broken tomato vines and rotting discards from the last season.

Williams, who has been growing tomatoes in and around Quincy for almost four decades, has seen his fair share of disasters: Hurricane Michael in 2018, which wiped out an entire season’s worth of produce; and an incessant scourge of whiteflies that have destroyed his crops more than a few times. But nothing quite measures up to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, he doesn’t just worry about his crops — he also worries that the 650 people that work on his farm and in his packing house during peak seasons will get sick.

In the car on the way to the farm, Williams rattles off his expenses from the spring: $5,000 on masks, $8,000 on shields, $30,000 on disinfectant, $5,000 for sprayers for the disinfectant. All told, he said, he’d spent about $50,000 protecting the people who work on his farm against COVID-19. “And guess what?” he said, smiling. “Not a single case. And I get to do it all again in the fall.”

The workers I spoke with on Williams’ farm said they felt comfortable with the safeguards he’d put in place. The problem, they said, were other farmers, many of whom hadn’t bothered with disinfecting vehicles or taking temperatures. “Here they spray our cars every morning and check our temperature. In the fields, we always stay six feet apart,” said Annabel, who had spent the past week clearing the field for the fall harvest. “Most don’t do that, though.”

Over the next few weeks, a skeleton crew of migrant workers who stuck around would clear the fields and prepare them for the fall harvest. They will spend most of August cleaning up the debris from last season, then reshape 800 acres of dirt into new tomato beds, which will be covered in miles of plastic. After that, they’ll make tiny tears in the plastic at even intervals to make way for one  million seedlings, each of which will get a wooden stake. It’s tedious, exhausting work and for many of the workers, it’s the start of another tough growing season. But this season would be tougher than most.

“I’m more afraid of the fall than I was this spring,” Williams told me. “Gadsden County didn’t have but 300 people that had the virus in June.” He was quick to point out that the workers didn’t bring the virus with them, as the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, has implied. In fact, most workers are disconnected from Gadsden’s barebones healthcare infrastructure, meaning they almost never have access to testing or medical care.

For the past two years, Annabel Ramon-Saldania has worked on farms in the panhandle, spending the spring season in Gadsden, then moving to nearby Marianna for the fall harvest. She currently lives in a trailer with six other workers, none of whom are her family. Ramon-Saldania, like the other workers I spoke with, had never taken a COVID-19 test.

“I asked someone about where the tests were, and they told me I needed papers,” she said. Ramon-Saldania’s concern is a common one among workers in Quincy, many of whom are undocumented. While the Department of Health in Gadsden County doesn’t ask for documentation before providing COVID tests, workers are often wary of giving their information to state organizations.

Even if workers felt comfortable getting tested, tests in Gadsden are hard to come by. The only testing center in the county is open just one day a week in the afternoon. And the only community clinic, the Jessie Furlow Medical Center, saw just 264 migrant workers this past year. Even though the medical center offers extended hours, many workers are unable to find transportation or take off time from work to get tested or see a doctor.

With the population expected to double in October, there is still no plan in place to increase testing locations or hours. Even though Tallahassee, the state’s capital, is just 30 minutes away from Quincy, Governor Ron Desantis, has largely ignored pleas from farmers and workers to increase testing and come up with a plan to keep workers safe in the fall. In fact, he’s done little more than cast blame on the workers for their own situation, claiming that “overwhelmingly Hispanic” agricultural communities are the leading source of outbreaks, even as the data shows otherwise.

That’s not to say that cases aren’t rising in Florida. During the month of July, after many of the workers had already moved out of state, cases in Gadsden County jumped from around 300 to 1,400. Infection rates still show no signs of tapering off. If the trend continues, when Silva and her family return in October, they will face a dire situation with few resources to help them survive.

“If one of us were to get sick, where would we go? We don’t have anywhere to isolate,” Silva said.

Back in Immokalee, Rodriguez and the CIW staff are also starting to prepare for an outbreak in the fall. Like in Gadsden, cases in Immokalee have continued to rise, even as the seasonal population remains at its lowest point of the year. When workers, some of whom have been gone since before the first outbreak in June, return to Immokalee, they’ll be facing a very different situation than they were in the spring.

“We expect that the number of cases will increase in the fall,” said Rodriguez. “Especially because people will come back from other states in rural communities where people don’t know what it’s like to experience COVID the way we have in Immokalee.”

Even though that increase is all but certain, the Collier County health department has cut back on testing and hasn’t made any commitments to increase hours in the fall. For its part, the Collier County health department said it would increase testing, but only in response to increased demand. This fall, the department also plans to bring mobile testing clinics to workers in the fields.

While the health department has implemented limited contact tracing measures with the year-round population, the CIW said those measures often fall short. Workers who test positive are frequently contacted by health department staff who don’t speak their language and, oftentimes, aren’t asked to provide information for those who they’ve been in contact with. Even when workers are notified that they may have been exposed to COVID-19, self-isolation is all but impossible in the cramped trailers where they live. Local health workers are doing their best to work with the limited resources they were given, but without broader systems in place, they’re woefully unprepared for the next wave.

“We’re still in the midst of this, “ Rodriguez said. “They failed the first time, but we don’t need to do that again. We have the knowledge to do a better job, but they have to listen to us.”

For Silva and Espinoza, they have little choice but to move back to Immokalee in the fall. There just isn’t enough work elsewhere. Come October, Silva and her family will pack their house, stock up on disinfectant, and move back down to Immokalee. When they arrive, Silva will once again scrub the house from top to bottom, and Espinoza will go out to the fields in a mask, six feet apart from the other workers. But without contact tracing or testing, those protections only go so far.

“It scares me because he’s the provider,” said Silva. “If he got sick, I don’t know what I would do. Without his income, we’d have nothing.”

Maria Silva, Angel Espinoza and Rosy Aguilar are pseudonyms.

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