At Work in the Fields of the Lord

Long hours. Low pay. Hardly any rights. It's the life of Palm Beach County's hidden underclass: migrant farm workers.

Just past the sign announcing the city limits of Boca Raton, though, is a visual anomaly: a farm. Hundreds of acres of tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper plants line the road in rows as strictly maintained as the nearby golf greens. Teams of Mexican workers in jeans and baseball caps walk the fields, trays of pepper plants hooked to their belt loops. They pause every few feet to stuff the plants into pristine rows of soil.

Clint Moore Road dead-ends in a series of mustard-color warehouses, ringed by an assortment of 18-wheelers and tractors. This homely site is, in fact, headquarters to Thomas Brothers Farms. The company farms more than 10,000 acres in Florida and western New York state and employs about 1000 workers at any one time.

Inside one of the company's warehouses, roughly 120 people are working this December morning on a completely mechanized cucumber and bell pepper production line (right down to the automatic glue gun). Another packinghouse next door, silent today, is reserved for tomatoes. Dirt-caked cucumbers direct from a Hobe Sound field slide across metal rollers and are transformed into waxed, shiny, Publix-ready vegetables. The machine shoots out boxes of cukes at a rate of roughly one every three seconds. By the end of the day, fourteen truckloads of cucumbers and nine more of bell peppers will be ready for shipping.

Tomato workers usually get 40 cents for each bucket picked
Melissa Jones
Tomato workers usually get 40 cents for each bucket picked
Christine Cadet is one of 25 Haitian women suing their former employer, Thomas Brothers Farms
Melissa Jones
Christine Cadet is one of 25 Haitian women suing their former employer, Thomas Brothers Farms

"Somebody will be eating them tomorrow," says Tom Boe, manager of the packinghouse. "Maybe today."

The workers who oversee the conveyor belt -- pulling out misshapen cucumbers or ensuring that boxes aren't too full or empty -- are anonymous but vital cogs in the operation. Most are immigrants from Central America, and some are also plaintiffs in the minimum-wage lawsuit pending against Thomas Brothers Farms.

John Thomas, the 79-year-old patriarch of Thomas Brothers, says he can't offer any specific comment on the pending lawsuits. But he insists his company is merely doing what's necessary to survive in an economy no longer kind to farmers.

When Thomas expanded the family business south to Palm Beach County in 1957, the Florida swampland was booming with agriculture. "Even along Federal Highway there was some land being worked when I first came down here," he recalls. Today Thomas says, "we get offers every day for our land. Big, big money. But we like what we do."

Farming is still the county's second-largest industry -- after tourism, of course -- generating around $1 billion annually. That's more than two times as much as its closest Sunshine State agricultural competitor, Miami-Dade County. Farms continue to occupy about half of the county's land.

But vegetable farmers such as Thomas are in a fierce battle to maintain their market. Cheaper imports, particularly from Mexico in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement, have become an ever-present threat. "What we're struggling with is foreign product being dumped on our market," notes Lewanna Carusso, executive director of the Palm Beach County Farm Bureau. "We're price takers, we're not price setters. You're really not in control of your destiny there."

Thomas is more dire: "It's not a bright picture for agriculture," he says. "Nobody should sit back and figure we'll always have fruits and vegetables in this county."

Looming over Greg Schell's cluttered desk at the back of the MFJP offices in Belle Glade, is a rainbow-color list of perhaps 500 Haitian names. Each of the Haitians was a plaintiff in a previous minimum wage case that Schell argued against a Miami-Dade County farm accused of bilking employees out of their social security deductions. Schell planned to add the names one at a time to a display in the courtroom during closing arguments, thus highlighting the enormity of the financial wrongdoing. But the defendant settled before the case went to trial.

Schell notes that many farms would prefer to settle than face the prospect of losing in court -- and being forced to cover his costs. "They would rather do anything than pay our attorney fees," he says, noting that his bills can run $300 an hour. "That just kills them."

Despite a law degree from Harvard University, Schell is the antithesis of the corporate lawyers he often squares off against in court. His predilection is for beltless blue jeans that have not yet begun to fade, wrinkled, short-sleeve shirts, and Nike running shoes. His pallid skin, disheveled hair, and belly suggest a man who spends too many late nights in his office dining on takeout food.

Schell grew up on a wheat farm in eastern Washington state, where his family sometimes employed migrant workers, and he has devoted his entire post-law-school life to protecting the rights of those same laborers. He initially moved to Immokalee after hearing a speaker at Harvard tell of the Third World conditions in the area. With the exception of a five-year stint defending farm laborers on the Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia ("Virginia is awful; it deserves to be paved over, really," Schell says), he's spent the last two decades in the Glades region, first in Immokalee, and for the last 11 years in Belle Glade. In the 1998 book, With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today, author Daniel Rothenberg notes that Schell is famously despised by farmers and their attorneys up and down the East Coast.

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