by Michael Steinberg
The humble cucumber has become entangled in controversy in North Carolina.
This summer the Farm Workers Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) is leading a statewide drive to unionize cucumber workers laboring for growers under contract to the state's Mount Olive Pickle Company.
According to Mount Olive Pickle Company information, "North Carolina is second in the nation in agricultural production of pickling cucumbers." The company also say it's "the largest independent pickle company in the United States."
FLOC says NC farm workers need a union to achieve livable wages and decent working conditions. But the Mount Olive Pickle Company says it doesn't like unions and doesn't employ cucumber farm workers anyway. The NC Growers Association says unionization of cucumber workers will destroy the state's cucumber industry.
During June, charges and countercharges swirled through NC cucumber fields as both the harvest and FLOC's organizing gained momentum.
FLOC's views seemed to be vindicated early in the month when 100 Mexican migrant workers fled the cucumber fields of Lenoir County farmer Anthony Smith after only one day on the job. The June 11 News & Observer reported that "the workers complained that...Smith worked them from 6 a.m. to almost 9 p.m. June 3, forcing one 21-year old to continue plucking cucumbers after he spit up blood."
Bone of Contention
In a May 29 letter to the Prism, Dale Bone, president of the company, had invited a representative of the paper "to tour our facility and see how we work together to provide the food that feeds the world."
Bone's letter (see below) is mainly a pointed response to an April Prism article by FLOC supporter Matt Emmick.
On Saturday, June 20, accompanied by photographer Jamie Willeford, I visited Dale Bone Farms in Nash County, maybe ten miles west of Rocky Mount.
Down on the Farm
Our visit to Dale Bone Farms was definitely unannounced and perhaps unexpected. I had left several messages for Mr. Bone over the previous two weeks, without response.
On the previous Thursday I finally reached him by not identifying myself to his secretary when I called. When I told him who I was, he took my name and number and said someone would call me. But I'd heard nothing back when we set out that Saturday afternoon.
When we showed up we only caught a glimpse of Mr. Bone zipping off in his shiny new black VW bug. After that we were unable to locate him, but comptroller Thomas Joyner was kind enough to take us on a tour.
We'd already observed a lot of activity on the facility before Joyner led us to his office. Eighteen wheelers lumbered in and out while fork lifts scurried all over the vast lot.
In his office, Joyner told us their current pickling cucumber crop covered 1700 acres, while a second one in the fall would take up to 2000. Currently, he informed us, Dale Bone Farms was sending out 25 to 30 tractor trailer loads of cukes to all points across the US, and into Canada as well.
Joyner said that besides cucumbers the farm also produced sweet potatoes, tobacco, soybeans, wheat, and cotton, on a total of 5000 acres.
Joyner next took us into a large building called a packing shed, where the cucumbers are brought to be prepared for shipment. On the grader, and elevated platform in the middle of the building, dozens of Mexican workers busied themselves with washing the cukes and separating them by size, after which they fall through chutes into large boxes for shipment.
Cukes that are crooked or otherwise commercially imperfect go to dump trucks for disposal.
Joyner showed us another packing shed in operation for cukes, and said there was a third, not currently in use, for sweet potatoes. He said a crew of 40 to 45 worked at each grader, typically starting at about 10 a.m. and knocking off at 7 p.m., or "whenever the job's done." Joyner said these days he often was working until midnight and had been there until 2:30 a.m. once that week.
We didn't get to see any cucumber pickers that day, because they were all working in Tarboro, a 45 minute ride we didn't have time to make, though Joyner was willing to take us. "We have most of our acreage out there now," he told us, "Rocky Mount is spreading this way, and land is more valuable as real estate around here."
Joyner did show us, however, large trailers filled with the results of mechanically picked cucumbers. On top of the heap we saw whole plants: fruit, vines, roots and all, with a good amount of soil mixed in. He told us the farm had three such machines, each costing over $100,000. "With the tractors you're talking over $200 grand in equipment each," he added.
Joyner said the cucumber business was becoming increasingly competitive, with cheap cukes from Mexico and Guatemala, based on cheaper labor, readily available in the US. He conceded that this trend had accelerated since the implementation of NAFTA in 1994.
I asked Joyner what would happen if FLOC was successful with its unionizing drive. "That would make it unprofitable to harvest cucumbers," he answered. "If we didn't go to mechanization we'd have to stop growing them."
At the Crossroads
It was still hot in Nash County on that late afternoon when we left Dale Bone Farms. So we stopped at at crossroads store nearby for cold drinks.
Sitting on the curb out front we met some workers from the farm's packing sheds. While cooling off we asked questions and traded quips.
"We're not proud of the fact, but the reality is a lot of our workers are illegal," Thomas Joyner had told us. All these workers admitted they were in the US illegally. They said they followed the harvest all over the country. Next they would go to Florida to pick oranges, some later to Oregon for pears.
The workers said they were paid $5.50 an hour by Dale Bone Farms. They all said they worked 16 hours a day, 96 hours a week, with no overtime pay.
They said they'd gotten off early today. I wondered if our visit had anything to do with that.
They told us they were all from different parts of Mexico. We asked if life was better or worse since NAFTA. "Things were already getting worse," one answered. "Now you pay more to get less."
Was work at Dale Bone Farms better or worse that at other places they'd worked in the US? About the same, they shrugged, one saying it was better because you could get lots of work and so made good money.
We asked if we knew of any child laborers on the farm. All knew of four 14 year-olds working in the packing sheds.
As we were about to leave they asked us for a ride. We took them to their living quarters in an isolated spot in the countryside.
Their home consisted of what might have been a converted chicken house, a long low shack whose windows consisted of wire mesh-covered sections cut out of the walls, without glass or any other protection from the elements. They told us it was hot inside.
We hung out for a while longer and traded more questions and cracks. We asked if they'd heard of FLOC or its leader Baldemar Velasquez. They hadn't. So we told them about FLOC's campaign for the rights of cucumber workers.
"Conoces a Cesar Chavez? (do you know of Cesar Chavez?)" I asked. They did. So I explained to them how Baldemar Velasquez was the "Cesar Chavez" of North Carolina. And then I told them what he had told me just few weeks ago: "We need to focus the country on North Carolina. Not only in pickles, not only in the fields, but in the poultry operations too. We'll keep banging on the wall until it comes down."
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