Florida Tomatoes: A Penny on the Dollar
Arriving on supermarket shelves during the coldest days of the year — loaded with vitamins and antioxidants and the taste of summer — year-round tomatoes are an affordable luxury that Americans take for granted. Each year, we eat 20 pounds per person.
More than 33,000 farmworkers, almost all of them undocumented Latinos,7 produce Florida’s annual crop of 1 billion pounds of fresh-market tomatoes, a crop whose wholesale value exceeds $619 million.
The itinerant farmworker makes this all possible. But for every dollar we spend on a supermarket tomato, the field worker who picks it gets just 1 cent.8
Tomatoes are grown on 31,000 acres in south Florida. As seeds are sprouted in greenhouses,workers on foot and tractor plow narrow, raised beds saturated with fumigants that kill everything in the sandy soil. The beds are covered with plastic sheets, and holes are punched 18 to 30 inches apart. Workers then walk the rows, planting 4,000 seedlings per acre. Four-foot stakes are driven between the plants.
A month later, workers prune and tie every plant to twine that is stretched between the stakes. As the plant grows, the twine is adjusted to keep the plant upright and the new tomatoes off the ground.
Over three months, Florida tomato plants and soil are sprayed or dusted with as many as 72 different pesticides. At 217 pounds per acre, this is the greatest use of pesticides in U.S. farming.9 Applied by tractor and hand-held sprayers, the poisons keep the tomatoes free of bugs, diseases and blemishes.
Warnings, protective clothing, washing water and bilingual safety instructions are required, but the rules are often ignored and workers are often exposed while in the fields. They work despite headaches, rashes and vomiting — afraid of losing their meager pay.
The harvest is a frenetic race to hand-pick the tomatoes and get them to the markets. Farmworkers fill a large plastic bucket with 32 pounds of tomatoes and run with it to a truck, where it is dumped into large boxes. For each 32-pound bucket, the worker gets 45 to 50 cents, a wage unchanged in the last 30 years. A worker typically fills 100 to 150 buckets a day, earning a “piecerate” wage of $45 to $75 per day.
Once the tomatoes are picked, the plants are killed with herbicides, the stakes are removed and disinfected, and the plastic sheets and twine are burned.
Under federal law, a farmworker’s weekly pay must equal at least what she would earn under the federal minimum wage for the number of hours worked. But workers often report their paychecks fall short. A day’s work can range from three to 12 hours. Workers are not paid for hours spent waiting for plants to dry in the morning before picking.
A seven-year campaign by the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers to raise tomato workers’ wages by one penny per pound — a 60 percent raise, to 77 cents per bucket — has won support from McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Subway and Burger King. But these corporations buy less than 5 percent of Florida’s tomatoes, relying instead on imports. Still, these courageous actions by workers — organizing to improve their working conditions in the face of overwhelming adversity — have produced only small increases in pay in the industry overall. Supporters hope that a recent agreement between CIW and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange may bring about greater change, but many obstacles remain.
America’s largest supermarkets continue to resist paying one additional penny per pound for tomatoes, even though the cost would be passed directly to consumers who wouldn’t notice a penny in a product that ranges from $1.30 to $3 per pound.
For all their labors, Florida tomato workers live in poverty. They have no job protections. They get no vacation or sick days. Few have health insurance. They reside in temporary, crowded, migrant camps of rundown trailers, shacks and tenement apartments. If they have legal immigration status, they are eligible for food stamps, Medicaid and other programs for the poor — but the vast majority are not.
This winter, they will be back in Florida’s fields, growing tomatoes for America.
When you buy one, remember them.