Manatee’s farmworker families facing uncertain future

Manatee's migrant farmworker families gather to receive school supplies

The 16th Annual Back to School backpack giveaway is highly anticipated by migrant families whose numbers in Manatee are slowly declining due to shifting labor patterns.
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The 16th Annual Back to School backpack giveaway is highly anticipated by migrant families whose numbers in Manatee are slowly declining due to shifting labor patterns.

As they have done for 16 straight years at the vast Falkner Farms in far East Manatee, the Farmworker Career Development Program of Manatee Technical College and Tropicana held its annual “Back to School” backpack giveaway for the children of migrant farmworkers.

As the years have gone by, events like Sunday’s at East Coast Migrant Head Start Myakka Center just west of the farm have increasingly become more significant to Esperanza Gamboa. The two-decade-long coordinator of the Farmworker program, which serves the local migrant families and her staff, says the number of migrant farmworker families living together on or near Manatee County farms is slowing diminishing.

Although there are still migrant farm camps in Manatee where whole families live and many family members work like the six at Falkner Farms, their future is in question because of shifting labor patterns.

“The farm owners can now bring young male workers directly from their countries,” Gamboa said shortly after 145 children from about 60 migrant families giddily lined up to get containers of orange juice and backpacks filled with notebooks, pens, markers, folders, lined paper and other school supplies.

That figure of 60 families might have been 120 a few years ago, Gamboa added.

“They go to Mexico. They go to Central America. They contract for services,” Gamboa added. “So, what is happening is that our families are losing their jobs because it is easier for them to provide services for single workers than provide services for families.”

“I can’t speak for them because they know what is best for them,” Gamboa said of the growers. “But I believe it is more cost-effective. With 20 to 25-year-old males, it is very easy to provide transportation and housing. I understand their reason. This is happening all over the country, not just here.”

The East Coast Migrant Head Start Myakka Center, which has a school-readiness plan with local schools to get these migrant children ready for education, has also noticed it is harder to find children to teach, said Lizaida Ramos, director for East Coast Migrant Head Start Myakka Center.

The center served 63 children during its last session, yet the school was built for a licensed capacity of 126, Ramos added.

“The biggest challenge is to find them,” Ramos said of the children. “Things are changing. Now we have less migrant families because the farmers are using a little more contractors to get men without the families. We are working on it. We go outside and do recruitment to find more families. That is our biggest challenge.”

Claudia’s story

Falkner Farms’ migrant farmworker Claudia Rincon, 42, who attended Sunday’s “Back to School” with four of her kids, said the farmworker model where the family lives together in farm housing has been successful for herself and her husband, Cesar, who have lived in farm camps and worked together while raising six children.

Unlike most of the families at Sunday’s event who live in camps, the Rincons were able to get a mobile home in Zolfo Springs, east of the Manatee County border.

The pride that Claudia Rincon carries in her eyes is because she considers herself rich. She is rich from her children turning out great, she said.

“I am very happy and proud of my kids,” Rincon said of Cesar, 21; Rocio, 19; Ivan, 13; Isabel, 11; Crystal, 7 and Josefina, 4.

Young Cesar and Rocio are off on their own, with Rocio in a committed relationship and Cesar pursuing a career in law enforcement — he hopes the FBI — after attending the University of Michigan, Claudia Rincon said.

“Many school changes,” Rincon said, describing how hard it was over the years to register her kids for eight months in Florida and four months in Michigan, while she and her husband followed the crops.

The children saw their mother rise at 5 a.m. every single day and make her own tortillas as part of getting breakfast ready for the whole family by 6 a.m. Work was and still is just a phone call away every day, and mom must have the food ready. It’s a highly structured life.

“We work every day that they need us,” Claudia Rincon said.

Although those who advocate for migrant farmworkers have been concerned about their wages, working conditions and education, Rincon said that she has been picking in the fields of Falkner Farm every year for 21 years and has no problems with the work or complaints.

“I work at my own pace now and I love what I do,” she said in Spanish, with English translation from 11-year-old Isabel, who attends Zolfo Springs Elementary School and plans to be a professional singer like her hero, “On Purpose” singer Sabrina Carpenter.

To make money as a cucumber picker at Falkner Farms, one must fill a box that is roughly four-foot tall and five-foot long with the cucumbers. Rincon said she earns $32 per filled box. How many boxes she can fill a day wearing her farm gloves depends on how accessible the cucumbers are and how fast she wants to go, she said.

Incredibly, she said she can fill a box in 45 minutes to an hour. But she keeps her pace at about two-and-a-half boxes a day, which is about $75, she said.

This is how she and her husband have supported their family for 20 years. They cover their bills, but extra money is not available.

The four younger Rincon children really needed the backpacks they got Sunday, their mother said.

“It is a great help for the kids and they are very happy to get their school supplies,” Rincon said. “Otherwise we couldn’t purchase them. It’s too much money.”

“I hope the farmworker program continues,” Rincon added.

Gamboa’s take on loss of migrant families is that her organization must now dig in to help members of the families that are still together find careers.

“The Farmworker Career Development Program is more important at this time than ever before in our whole history,” Gamboa said. “We have to help them get educated and get their high school diploma so we can train them for a short or long term career. We must help them develop their goals because they need to find jobs in the cities. We have having fewer and fewer agricultural jobs for them.”

That OJ started with a worker like Rincon

People drink orange juice from Tropicana and other manufacturers but rarely think that it starts with a worker like Claudia Rincon picking an orange, said Scott McGarrity, senior manager of finance at Tropicana.

“Predominantly, orange picking is done by hand,” said McGarrity, who organized Sunday’s event with several other volunteers. “Workers have to go up into the trees with ladders.”

Tropicana’s oranges are grown mostly in Florida with a small amount of juice coming from Brazil, McGarrity added.

“If you are drinking Pure Premium OJ it is likely from Florida,” McGarrity said. “And a Florida farmworker picked your oranges.”

Pepsico, Tropicana’s parent company, helped buy the 145 backpacks for Sunday’s event and was why McGarrity attended with his daughter, Sabrina, 9.

“We have an affinity for the farmworker community,” McGarrity said. “Tropicana likes working with farmworkers because we are in the agricultural industry and although we don’t own the orange groves, we are heavily dependent on agricultural workers to provide raw materials to make our juice.”

Richard Dymond: 941-745-7072, @RichardDymond