As we shift our attention to “Southern Demographic Displacement” in Florida, I have started researching the starring role that agribusiness has played in blocking previous attempts to pass immigration reform in Florida.
Here are some more facts about Florida’s tomato industry which is our jumping off point into this investigation:
1.) Florida’s tomato industry employs about 15,000 to 33,000 workers in a season, around 80 percent of whom are illegal aliens, and according to the Pew Hispanic Center there are around 900,000 illegal aliens currently in Florida.
2.) The majority of workers in Florida’s tomato industry are illegal aliens from Mexico, Guatemala, or Haiti who pick tomatoes in order to send remittances back home. In other words, foreign workers are sucking money out of circulation in Florida’s economy and sending it abroad where it creates jobs elsewhere.
3.) 80 percent of the tomatoes produced in Florida are grown in Southwest Florida near Tampa in Manatee and Hillsborough Counties. There are now probably over 40,000 Hispanics in Manatee County and over 80 percent of them are illegal aliens.
4.) Florida more produces 90 percent of America’s winter tomatoes – a crop worth more than $600 million annually. The “Florida Tomato Committee” now has around 75 members who own huge tracts of land.
90 percent of them belong to the “Florida Tomato Growers Exchange” which is their public lobbying arm. The “Florida Tomato Growers Exchange” opposed the penny a pound pay raise and labeled it “pretty much un-American.”
5.) Fast food giants like Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King refused for years – before finally capitulating – to pay illegal alien workers in Florida’s tomato industry an extra penny a pound for their labor.
Although it is still one of the crappiest jobs in America, the days of “modern slavery” accusations seem long gone, and the Florida tomato industry has taken major steps to reform itself in recent years.
6.) Reggie Brown, who is the public face of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, argued in 2011 that a Florida version of Arizona’s immigration law would destroy the Florida tomato industry which relies on illegal alien labor:
“Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, said a state immigration law could devastate his membership.
“It would basically eliminate the tomato industry from the state,” Brown said. “In agriculture we are totally dependent upon a hand process with no opportunity in the foreseeable future to do anything different.”
7.) In April 2013, the US and Mexico reached a deal on Mexican tomato imports which had been devastating the Florida tomato industry. Florida has been on the losing side of a “tomato war” with Mexico for 16 years:
Since NAFTA was signed in the early 1990s, the Florida tomato industry has faced strong competition from Mexico which has taken away half of their market share of winter tomatoes. Nearly half the tomatoes eaten in the US are now imported from Mexico. Mexican tomatoes are grown in greenhouses whereas Florida tomatoes are picked green and treated with gas to change their culture.
The new agreement substantially raises the “reference price” of Mexican tomatoes – exports to the US have quadrupled since 1996 – and essentially protects the Florida tomato industry. Wal-Mart sided with the Mexican government because it relies heavily on Mexican produce.
“We feel if we don’t draw a line in the sand so we can trade produce in this hemisphere freely and fairly there will be no domestic production of tomatoes in this country,” said Reggie Brown, vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, one of several grower groups that wants taxes imposed on Mexican imports.”
7.) Probably because Florida is a key swing state, the Obama administration sided with the Florida tomato industry over Mexico.
Mexican workers in Mexico are able to produce better and cheaper tomatoes than illegal aliens in Florida (where production is down by 41 percent) largely because Mexico’s climate (like California’s) is drier and thus superior for growing tomatoes.
8.) The Florida tomato industry, which lobbied so hard against Florida’s Arizona-style immigration law, has vigorously lobbied in favor of enforcement of the “reference price” set by NAFTA to protect themselves from Mexican competition:
“Little did we know that the enforcement we bargained for was really not going to be any enforcement at all. The end result is we had Barney for our policeman; we didn’t have Andy,” he joked, referring to the Andy Griffith show.
9.) Southwest Florida’s environment is unsuited for growing tomatoes, but the Obama administration is propping us this tottering industry anyway:
“Tomato plants don’t like it in Southern Florida. “From a purely botanical and horticultural perspective,” Estabrook says, “you would have to be an idiot” to try to grow tomatoes commercially there. The soil, Mark Bittman writes, is like “a lousy beach,” sandy and poor in nutrients. The humid climate provides breeding ground for voracious insect pests.
It takes a lot to grow a tomato in the sand of South Florida: tons of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Florida, Estabrook reports, uses about eight times as many chemicals per acre on tomatoes as California. …”
In the final analysis, Big Tomato can only explain a small part of the overall picture of “Southern Demographic Displacement” in Florida. The impact of the tomato industry is largely confined to two counties in Southwest Florida. Even if there are around 33,000 mostly Hispanic illegal aliens working in Florida’s tomato fields, there are now almost 4.5 million Hispanics living in Florida as a whole.
At the same time, Big Tomato’s political clout in Tallahassee and Washington must be tremendous. Florida’s tomato industry roared and its voice proved to be louder on Capitol Hill than Mexico and Wal-Mart combined. The influence of this special interest over the direction of immigration policy resonates far beyond Florida’s tomato fields.