The Fern Fields

I visited a fern farm where migrant farm workers, mostly from Mexico, come to pick ferns that will serve as decoration for flower arrangements.

The atmosphere is calm and it’s a beautiful landscape. These farms usually are very damp and wet. The people picking ferns or other plants get their clothes soaked for most of the day.

During winter and spring it can be freezing, especially because these plants must grow under deep shadow, either wise they get burnt by the sun.

In the summer, the humidity can make it very difficult to breathe.

The dampness can produce skin infections and fungus on people’s feet, which itch a lot and can lead to infections.

One of the workers there, who wished to keep his identity anonymous, said that it didn’t matter if he put plastic bags underneath or on top of his clothes — he would always end up soaking wet. This depends on the type of fern they are picking, since some fern need more water than others.

At the Florida Farmworker Alliance

Florida Farmworker Alliance.
Juliana Jimenez.

Marcos, pictured above, works at the Florida Farmworker Alliance. He works hard and works overtime and will never get paid enough. People seek him out for advice and confide in him like family.

The Alliance helps the area’s farmworkers and provides information about their rights. When I went in, there were a couple of people in the waiting room, where there are hundreds of flyers and safety brochures. Some talk about how to ask your boss for your fair pay, what to do when you don’t get paid, or how not to get blackmailed because you’re working illegally.

Others talk about pesticide poisoning. They offer tips and safety procedures, among other general, slightly disturbing  prevention information so that people know about diseases they are very likely to get.

Symptoms include:

  • Breathing problems
  • Throat irritation
  • Skin irritation
  • Blisters, pustules
  • Headache
  • Stomach-ache
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Tremors
  • Muscle weakness
  • Blurry vision
  • Eye irritation
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fever

Valentine’s Day is Coming, Consuelo

Consuelo Arellano, 42, works at a fern farm in Pierson, Fla., about one hour 45 minutes from Gainesville. She collects different types of fern that are used as decoration, primarily for flower arrangements.

Now that St. Valentine’s Day is coming, demand is high. But supply isn’t. With the below-freezing temperatures Florida has endured this winter, fern grew only to about half their usual size. Buyers won’t take Consuelo’s fern because they are too small.

Her husband Guillermo now works tending horses. But for 26 years they had been working together picking various fruits, vegetables and plants in Florida. Together they came to the United States 27 years ago. They had tried to cross the border by foot when Consuelo was pregnant with their first child. But her six-month-old belly made it impossible to climb barbed-wire fences, so they decided to pay $800 to a “coyote,” a person who smuggles immigrants from Mexico to the United States. They were able to cross illegally in a train from Tijuana to California. Later, in the amnesty of 1987 they got their residencies, and later their citizenships.

Guillermo and Consuelo have eight children together, ranging from 26 to 7 years old. Some are now studying pharmacy or working with air conditioning equipment. The couple bought 11 acres of trifle, a type of fern, two years ago. Up to 13 people help her out during the busy seasons. Her children help out all the time too.

She sells each bushel at 25 cents. It takes her about one minute to collect one bushel. Her back aches; she’s bent over most of the time.

She has to wear long-sleeve shirts, long pants, high rubber boots, gloves and a cap because of the pesticides. People get hives, blisters, sometimes bleeding pustules. They get sick, or even throw-up. Babies are born with deformities or mental retardation. She knows a couple of women that this happened to.

“It’s normal,” Consuelo says, “people already know it’s because of the pesticides, so they don’t get scared.”

When this happens their boss gives them some creams, she says, or a voucher to go to the doctor, sometimes.

What about the other times?

“Then we have to go to the pharmacy and pay it ourselves,” Consuelo says, “or wait until it goes away.”

She keeps picking fern while she tells me this. We grow quiet. The distance between us widens, as she keeps picking and wanders a little, and I just stand in my place. Why is she there holding a bouquet of poisoned fern and I am here holding my camera? I feel guilty for making her think about the sea of poison she is wading through, a sea of nature artificial and toxic that has been her subsistence for 26 years.

“I do sometimes get scared,” she says, almost under her breath, so that what she’s fearing doesn’t become true.