Monday, June 28, 2010

reflections on farm work in the heat of the summer

I went berry picking this past Sunday afternoon at Vollmer Farm, a certified organic former-tobacco-farm about 45 minutes northeast of Raleigh. Berries are among my very favorite foods in the whole wide world. So, inspired by the season's bounties - blackberries & blueberries & even a few strawberries - I organized this little berry picking trip with a couple friends. Only one big problem: Sunday was blazing hot with a heat index of 105 degrees, and we went in the hottest midday hours. Whew, not so smart! Under hats, sunglasses and sunscreen, we picked sluggishly for an hour or so, rested often in the shade, then retreated to showers and air conditioning as soon as we'd picked enough to justify the trip. (Photo by Kate Pattison. The author picking blackberries at Vollmer Farm.)

Even with the heat, picking berries was pretty pleasant work - sometimes I was close enough to my friends to chat, and the rest of the time I was alone with my thoughts and the beautiful - if sweltering - day. Being on a certified organic farm, I had no qualms about pesticide exposure as the breezes cooled my bare arms and legs, and as I taste tested the different berry varieties. But, as I squatted and stooped and sweat, I thought a lot about farm workers. Here I am, an "agritourist," picking berries by my own choice, on the farm of my choice, no more or faster than I feel like, and I get to go home whenever I want....and even I am pretty uncomfortable, feeling pretty paranoid about sunburn and getting enough water. What would it be like if this was my job, if I picked berries all day long?

Toxic Free NC Leadership Council member Melissa Bailey wrote an email this weekend about her work with youth farm workers in Eastern NC that I'm sharing some of here with her permission, because she writes so eloquently about this issue.
My team and I have spent a very grueling week. I say this humbly because getting in and out of air conditioned vehicles and sweating an hour under the tin roofs of mobile homes/housing is nothing compared to what agricultural laborers suffer in heat indexes that are now regularly between 105-110 degrees.

The situation causes me to reflect about real climate change and if we can expect similar heat waves over this and future summers. It also raises questions about just how hot it can get and for how long. In short, we all dread August at this point (us and the workers).

I recall a conversation I had with a colleague and very good friend last season when children were experiencing breathing problems and our youth were losing weight quickly with some only getting as far as the cool porch floors or shaded areas in their shorts before they fell into exhausted sleep/rest.

She told me about what it is like when you breed prize animals, in this case, dogs. She recounted the importance to the owners that the animals remain disease and illness-free. She discussed the thousands of dollars some breeds can bring to the owners in income. She explained that the animals had air conditioners, regular physical examinations and were only exercised/trained in the early mornings
and late evenings. We talked about hydration and diet.

I felt sick to my stomach at the comparison. To this day it resonates. I understand the differences. I know people are supposed to seek their own medical attention, their own air conditioning, their own safety levels while in the fields. The
problem is, we all know they don't. Not because they don't care. But because they don't want to miss work, appear weak, or anger the contractor/grower. In short, they desperately, desperately need their jobs.

They need to work so badly they are willing to work in dangerous heat indexes for 8-12 hours, in conditions where contractors/growers can be found at the edge of the field with the water and sitting in their air conditioned trucks/vans. I know this because I drive by it every day I'm out there. Anyone who thinks otherwise is extremely naive.

A few camps only work until noon. The common thread in those camps seems to be that the grower/contractor won't put his workers in the field if he/she is not willing to work under the same conditions. One would think that the human condition would provoke this kind of behavior. Unfortunately, these contractors/growers are a minority.

This heat is so dangerous. It isn't Texas heat or Mexico heat. It's a humid heat that provokes every drop of moisture from your body. In time you stop sweating and you start to feel cool, then you begin to shake. If you don't understand what is happening, you say things like, "My body is used to the temperature now," and maybe you don't drink anything else because you're afraid you'll start sweating again...

Why? Obviously the injustice nags at me but I guess the larger question of how did we ever get to the point that we could so completely dehumanize the labor necessary for our food supply is the larger question. What happened? And how in the world can we keep this from slipping further and further into a time when we just buried them and bought more?

I have to go now. (...) I love my job, even in 107 degree heat indexes. I get to take them (the workers) water and fresh fruit and take them to the clinic and even call the occasional ambulance. I can't really teach anything. They fall asleep too quickly. But still, I go and sweat with them. It seems like the least I can do for a situation I am so powerless to affect.
Thank you, Melissa, for the work that you do!

Now for a little comic relief: check out this article about a joint effort between the UFW and the Colbert Report: "In a tongue-in-cheek call for immigration reform, farmworkers are teaming up with comedian Stephen Colbert to challenge unemployed Americans: Come on, take our jobs."

Stay cool, everyone!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ag-Mart: The end of a long, sad story

A long, disappointing episode came to a close today as the NC Pesticide Board accepted a final settlement agreement in the Ag-Mart case that has dragged on for more than five years. In 2005 the state found hundreds of pesticide safety violations in what would become the Department of Agriculture’s largest enforcement case ever.

Three families alleged that their children’s birth defects were related to pesticide exposure that pregnant workers experienced while working for Ag-Mart on tomato farms in Florida and North Carolina. One of the children died, and another, Carlitos (pictured at right), became a symbol of this case through stirring photography and reporting in the Raleigh News & Observer and Palm Beach Post. An investigation by the NC Division of Public Health could not prove whether the pesticide exposures to pregnant workers caused the birth defects, but found that they were almost certainly a contributing factor.

Today’s settlement covered six points. The state’s attorney provided an overview based on what the state gets out of the agreement, and what Ag-Mart gets. What the state gets:

  • Ag-Mart agrees to dismiss their appeal of the Pesticide Board’s ruling against them.
  • Ag-Mart will pay a $25,000 settlement – that’s $24,000 for this case, and another $1,000 to settle a separate case of pesticide misuse from 2006 that was never heard by the Pesticide Board.
  • Ag-Mart will conduct a pesticide education program for North Carolina farmworkers during the 2011 and 2012 growing season.

What Ag-Mart gets:

  • The Pesticide Board will make a public statement to the effect that there have been no pesticide violations found on Ag-Mart’s North Carolina farms since 2006, and that Jeffrey Oxley and Ag-Mart are free of any negligence or liability in this case.
  • Ag-Mart’s employee, Jeffrey Oxley, will get to keep his pesticide license, with a 6-month probationary period.
  • The Pesticide Board will amend its ruling so that all violations that were found to be “willful” violations of pesticide rules are now classified as “non-specified.”

All in all, this appears to be a much better deal for Ag-Mart than it is for the state, or for Ag-Mart’s employees. The settlement sends an unfortunate message that the state ultimately will not hold anyone responsible when a preventable pesticide incident has the potential to cause irreparable harm farmworkers and their families. How much worse would a case have to be in order to make the charges stick?

It is understandable that the state wanted to finally settle this case, but the settlement terms seem to be much more about rehabilitating Ag-Mart’s public image than protecting worker health and safety. A 2008 Governor’s Pesticide Task Force examined pesticide health and safety requirements in the aftermath of this case. Some regulations were tightened up around the margins, but larger reforms were rejected, and the funding for educational programs that resulted have all been cut since then in the state’s budget crisis.

One huge question remains unanswered: What is Ag-Mart going to do, and what is the state going to do, to make sure that something like this never happens again in our state? The Pesticide Board’s silence on this question today was deafening.

Update 6/19/10: Take action: write to the pesticide board.

Goodbye, Endosulfan!

One year ago this week, Toxic Free NC joined farmworker, health and environmental advocates around the nation calling on the US EPA to take the notoriously dangerous pesticide, endosulfan, off the market in the US. Read our blog post from June 8, 2009.

Today the EPA announced that it would do just that, to protect the health of farmworkers and wildlife.

Many thanks to all of you who joined the petitions to reconsider the scientific evidence, and cheers to EPA for getting rid of this persistent pollutant!