Advocacy & Activism, Economy & Market Forces

Florida Farms Buffeted by Global Economy

From Bradenton.com, James A. Jones Jr., 4 Nov 2011.

Among those who took centerstage at the Cesar Chavez Memorial Dinner were keynote speaker Greg Schell, left, and award recipient Steve Kirk of Rural Neighborhoods.

Among those who took centerstage at the Cesar Chavez Memorial Dinner were keynote speaker Greg Schell, left, and award recipient Steve Kirk of Rural Neighborhoods.

BRADENTON, FL — Farmworkers are the canaries in the coal mine of globalization.

That was the thesis of keynote speaker Greg Schell, an attorney with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, at the Cesar Chavez Memorial Dinner on Thursday night.

An increasingly global economy has worked vast changes on migrant labor, and the same forces will inevitably change Florida agriculture as well, Schell told the audience that gathered at Renaissance on 9th, 1816 Ninth St. W.

Since the groundbreaking TV documentary “Harvest of Shame” in 1960, the migrant workforce in the United States has evolved from one that was primarily American families.

The workforce in 1960 morphed into one that was comprised largely of families from Mexico, to one today that is overwhelmingly composed of unaccompanied males from Mexico, he said.

Changes in American agriculture began with the revolution of Fidel Castro in Cuba, which at the time contributed many of the winter crops to U.S. tables.

With the communist takeover in Cuba, the U.S. government supported making America self-sufficient in its agriculture.

But what might have made sense in 1959 does not always work in the new global economy.

In fact, American agriculture, which lobbies for low-cost foreign work- ers to harvest crops, al- ready understands the changing dynamic, Schell said.

For instance, the three largest tomato growers in Manatee County already have operations in Mexico, he said.

Ultimately, the tariffs on foreign producers, such as Brazilian citrus, will be lifted, making it more difficult for domestic producers to compete, he said.

But Florida agriculture will survive and change in ways to provide products that foreign competitors cannot match, he predicted.

Globalization cuts both ways, and U.S. corn producers have wiped out competitors in Mexico. The result: out-of-work farmers in rural Mexico come to the United States in search of work, he said.

With the mechanization of farm jobs, and crops going to places that can most efficiently produce them, the American jobs that are retained will be better paid, he said.

Foreign labor should be used only as a last resort. But those workers that are imported should be accorded freedom and protections, Schell said.

Thursday night’s dinner was dedicated to Sister Nora Brick, founder of Project Light and a staunch advocate for farmworkers in Manatee before she was attacked and seriously beaten in her home in February.

After the attack, she went into retirement was replaced by Sister Noelle Hart.

Luz Corcuera, president of Project Light Literacy Center, paid tribute to Sister Nora Brick as being Irish by birth, American by citizenship, a Franciscan by faith, and a migrant farmworker at heart.

“You never left Stillpoint House of Prayer without a blessing or prayer,” Corcuera said.

“We miss her daily presence, her sense of humor and, of course, her prayers,” Corcuera said.

Among those who re- ceived Cesar Chavez Farmworker awards were:

  • Steve Kirk, executive director of Rural Neighborhoods, a Florida-based nonprofit that has developed quality, affordable housing for migrant and seasonal farmworkers;
  • Carmen Pureco, who came to the Myakka City area with her family at 15 years old and has become a staunch advocate and networker to improve the lives of migrants;
  • Marvin Mills, secretary of the Manatee/Sarasota Farmworker Supporters.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021.

Source: Bradenton.com, “Florida farms buffeted by global economy” by James A. Jones Jr., 4 Nov 2011.

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