Signaling an end to years of hostility, the Florida tomato industry has signed an agreement with a labor group whose goal is to improve working conditions.

UPDATED: Florida tomato growers strike deal with Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Doug Ohlemeier

Workers grade roma tomatoes at Six L’s Packing Co. Inc., Immokalee, Fla., in early November.
Florida’s tomato industry has ended years of hostility by signing an agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee workers and struck a deal to improve farmworker working conditions.

On Nov. 16, the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Growers Exchange and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers signed what they call a “historic breakthrough in Florida’s tomato fields.”

Participating exchange grower members have agreed to pass to workers an additional penny-per-pound of tomatoes picked, paid by tomato buyers. They’d also be subject to audits to oversee the program. Growers will also participate in the CIW’s “Fair Food Code of Conduct,” scheduled to be fully implemented at the start of the 2011-12 season.

With the exception of three smaller companies that the exchange hasn’t had time to communicate with (as of Nov. 17), all of the state’s growers have agreed to the deal, said Reggie Brown, the exchange’s executive vice president.

He said the tomato association hasn’t taken a position on the issue and that the deal only involves individual growers.

In the fall of 2009, Mulberry, Fla.-based East Coast Brokers and Packers Inc. became the first large grower-packer to enter in agreement with the CIW. In October, Palmetto, Fla.-based Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., became the first large exchange member to sign a separate agreement with the CIW followed a couple of weeks later by Six L’s Packing Co. Inc., Immokalee, Fla.
Brown said the deal shows how Florida’s growers value their employees.

UPDATED: Florida tomato growers strike deal with Coalition of Immokalee Workers

“They are the key to our ability to growing tomatoes and we couldn’t do it without them,” he said. “We are and have been committed to long term solutions to improving the lives of farmworkers and their families.”

While growers have long had concerns over the CIW’s requests, Brown said in recent months they’ve engaged in “enough dialogue to satisfy their questions and concerns” and decided to develop business solutions to handle those fears.

Brown said the labor group’s Code of Conduct is similar to other social accountability programs, as well as the Socially Accountable Farm Employers Certification program Florida’s tomato industry helped develop in 2005 with the Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, Immokalee.

He said the exchange had been at odds with the CIW for years over a range of issues — the group in the past has referred to legal issues concerning being a conduit for the money, and Brown said growers must keep costs down to remain competitive with Mexican imports.

Participating growers exchange members are Pacific and Six L’s and:

  • Ag-Mart Produce Inc., which does business as Santa Sweets Inc., Plant City, Fla.;
  • Big Red Tomato Packers, Fort Pierce, Fla.;
  • Classie Growers LLC, Myakka City, Fla.;
  • DiMare Co., Homestead, Fla.;
  • Gargiulo Inc., Naples, Fla.;
  • Harllee Packing Inc., Palmetto, Fla.;
  • Nobles-Collier Inc., Immokalee, Fla.;
  • Taylor & Fulton Packing LLC, Palmetto;
  • Tomatoes of Ruskin Inc., Ruskin, Fla.;
  • West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto.

Jon Esformes, Pacific Tomato’s operating partner and chief marketing officer, hailed the agreement as historic.

UPDATED: Florida tomato growers strike deal with Coalition of Immokalee Workers

“This is a significant step forward for the Florida tomato industry,” he said. “Once again, Florida is proving itself to be a leader in agriculture on all levels.”

The deal settles 15 years of animosity between the workers’ group and the growers, said Lucas Benitez, a CIW spokesman,

“This is a watershed moment in the history of Florida agriculture,” Benitez said in a news release. “With this agreement, the Florida tomato industry — workers and growers alike — is coming together in partnership to turn the page on the conflict and stagnation of the past and instead forge a new and stronger industry.”

Benitez said more work would need to be done to make Florida’s tomato industry “a model of social accountability for the 21st century.”