Farm workers prepare for hurricane threat


PIERSON, Fla. — Wednesday, November 23, 2011 — When the Atlantic hurricane season ends on Nov. 30, the farm workers of Pierson, Fla., will have more than one reason to celebrate.

Not only did the hurricanes stay away this year. Last month, farm workers opened a Community Disaster Center in Pierson to prepare for the next devastating storm, whenever it comes.

The center provides roughly 350 square feet of space to store emergency supplies such as food and medicine in a local office of the Florida Farm Workers Association. Church World Service funded the project after a series of devastating storms in 2004 and 2005.

Organizers of the project say that their biggest challenge was overcoming local opposition. Pierson is in a rural area that primarily grows ornamental ferns, and while the fern cutters are predominantly Hispanic, most of their employers and local government officials are not.

In 2004, Hurricane Frances revealed the tensions between these communities. The storm caused widespread damage to homes and power lines, and many farm workers relied on hot meals from relief agencies in the weeks that followed.

However, the town of Pierson ordered relief agencies to leave ahead of schedule to encourage fern cutters to return to work, according to newspaper accounts. This convinced the farm workers that they needed to be better prepared for disasters, according to Roberta Perry, a state organizer for the National Farm Worker Ministry.

“It was just sort of a community discussion — if we could take care of ourselves it would be better,” Perry recalls.

Perry helped the farm workers apply for funds to build the Community Disaster Center, and CWS provided them with $31,000 in 2007.

But more difficulties lay ahead. For several years, the Florida Farm Workers Association was unable to obtain a building permit from the Pierson Town Council. Although Pierson has fewer than 3,000 people, the council raised concerns that the building would create excessive traffic and demand for parking.

The council was often unable to vote on the issue because not enough members showed up for a meeting, Perry recalls. Church groups and representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union began attending council meetings to support the building permit application.

Marcos Crisanto, a local coordinator for the Florida Farm Workers Association, says he found the town’s reluctance to issue a permit perplexing.

“It could be because of discrimination, it could be because of racism, I don’t know,” he said.

In 2010, the association finally obtained a permit to build the disaster center as an addition to their existing office, instead of as a separate building. It was a partial victory — but a victory nonetheless.

On Oct. 23, 2011, the association celebrated the completion of the Community Disaster Center with food, children’s dances and a blessing of dedication.

Joann Hale, a CWS Emergency Response Specialist, attended the event. She says that the project is a great example of how CWS helps communities prepare for emergencies.

“We give our money to communities so they can empower themselves and stand on their own two feet and take care of themselves after a disaster,” Hale says.


Jan Dragin,

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.

Consuelo’s Home Away from Home

Consuelo, a migrant farm worker from Guerrero, Mexico, lives in a small house in Pierson, Fla., with her husband and some of her eight children. They all come together for dinner along with the grandkids. Preparations for dinner lasted since 6 p.m. to 7:45 p.m.

We had tortillas, barbecued steak and chicken, red and black beans, spicy chilly and avocados. A lot of the ingredients were planted in their backyard, like the chiles.

They also plant pumpkin and get their eggs from a chicken coup one of Consuelo’s sons-in-law built. I helped out making tortillas and washing dishes.

The children ate in small tables they set up in the living room while they watched cartoons. They got very rambunctious. After several threats, the TV had to be to turned off.

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.