Oranges have been the mainstay of Florida's economy for more than 100 years. Drive a few minutes from any Central or South Florida tourist attraction and you'll see endless rows of citrus trees, the state's biggest agricultural crop, stretching and rolling over 600,000 acres. The trees, with their dark-green leaves and white blossoms, thrive in Florida's hot, sandy soil. Orange groves have withstood hurricanes, frosts, and economic booms and busts.
Harvesting the orange crop hasn't changed much over the years, either. Workers with 90-pound sacks slung over their shoulders still climb 25-foot ladders to get at the fruit. "We're still picking fruit at the same productivity level as 20 years ago. Or 40 years ago. Or 60 years ago," says Florida Department of Citrus official Galen Brown.
But the grove owners say all that is about to change.
Currently, harvesting by manual labor means that each year as many as 100,000 farmworkers carry their ladders into the groves, lean them into trees and pull each piece of fruit by hand. Although certain other fruit crops are harvested by machines or by using chemical sprays that make the fruit drop from the tree, Brown says engineers so far have been stymied by the orange. "Citrus requires about 20 pounds of pull force to remove a fruit from the branch -- that's higher than any other fruit crop. So machines that remove cherries or apples can't remove citrus."
To see the future, stand in Pat Gaskins' Valencia orange grove in Arcadia. Actually, you'll hear it before you see it. It's called "the Mongoose," and it's so loud you can't talk over it. A cloud of dust surrounds it as it slowly inches between the trees.
The Mongoose is a modified forklift with a 15-foot arm. Long, nylon vibrating prongs at the end of the arm are inserted into the foliage. "The prongs gently get the limbs moving," says Gaskins, "and the moving of the limbs gets the oranges moving, and the weight of the orange then snaps it from the limb. If you look on the ground, oranges come off the tree very clean. No stems."
The Mongoose can vibrate a tree clean in just a few minutes. For an added benefit, the Mongoose is fitted with headlights and windshield wipers, so it can work at night and in the rain. Its manufacturer claims it can be made for $150,000 per machine.
The Mongoose is one of a half-dozen harvesting machines currently under review by the Florida Department of Citrus. The department is spending $2 million this year on research and development of the potential labor-saving devices and will help fund the one that is selected for production. The machines under review come in a variety of concoctions. One uses rotating brushes similar to the kind in a car wash. Other contenders include a device that blasts 100 mph winds at the trees, a machine that uses sonic vibration, and several that grab the trunk of the tree and shake it fruitless. Other machines will scoop up the fruit off the ground and into containers.
Industry officials say the arrival of mechanical harvesting machines is the biggest revolution in the citrus business since the creation of frozen concentrate. Brown predicts that within the next five years, machines will harvest the groves at the rate of 1,000 trees per hour. He says within 10 years, growers will save $200 million annually in labor costs. Mechanization, insists Brown, is the only way to compete on the world market, especially with Florida's closest competitor, Brazil. "We've got to do this," says Brown, "or just pack up in Florida."
But reaction from ground zero is less enthused.
Farmworker Association president Tirso Moreno recently met with farmworkers in Immokalee, in the heart of South Florida's agricultural region. Immokalee is home to the largest farmworker community in Florida. The groundbreaking 1960 CBS documentary Harvest of Shame, hosted by Edward R. Murrow, was filmed in Immokalee and gave most Americans their first look at farmworkers' living and working conditions. Moreno is meeting with the workers because they have heard about the machines, and some are worried about losing their jobs.
Moreno predicts the effects of the machines on the workers will be severe. "It's going to destabilize families," he says. "They're going to have to move where they can find other work. They'll be unemployed. There will be a lot of instabilization."
Picking fruit is more difficult and dangerous than other farmworker jobs, and Moreno knows this firsthand. When he was 16, he left Mexico with his father to pick oranges in Florida. Later he and his wife worked as a team in the groves, with her picking the lower branches while he worked the top of the tree from a 25-foot ladder. They would start a half hour before sunrise. "You're just picking as fast as you can," explains Moreno. "You have to be able to keep the bag on the ladder at the same time you're picking with both hands. The ladder hurts your legs. You have to balance yourself. It's slippery. I fell many times." This process is made all the more precarious with a bag slung over your shoulder that, when full, weighs 90 pounds. In order to reduce his trips up and down the ladder and make more money, Moreno stitched extra material into the bottom of his bag to make it bigger. "My wife was a good picker. We could pick a tree clean in 20 minutes," he says.
This low-tech method of getting oranges off the tree has existed since commercial orange groves first came to Florida a century ago. The first groves were in the northern part of the state, until hard freezes sent growers south. The first orange pickers were whites and African-Americans, often families, looking for work. They lived in their cars or in tents or in shacks on the owner's property. In the height of the Depression, the workers paid grove owners $5 a month for permission to camp in the groves. They earned an average of 83 cents a day.
Later, African-American families predominated. There was a brief period of labor from the Caribbean. Conditions in some camps improved in 1942, when the federal government ordered the construction of worker housing with the first running water and toilets.
The farmworker of today is primarily a Hispanic single male. Grower Gaskins says as the pickers have changed, so have his profits. "In the late 1970s we saw a trend from African-American pickers to Mexicans," he says. "The traditional profile for the African-American pickers were that they were whole families. The grandparents, the wives, the kids, they're all related. You probably had a 20- to 30-man crew that came in. You could depend on that. Then we saw the labor force decrease, and we didn't get that return. The profile shifted from a family-oriented group to a single Hispanic male. They get $300 in their pocket and they're set. They're migratory. There's no loyalty as there once was. They'll go to the higher-paying jobs."
Today, workers gather at 5:30 each morning in parking lots under dim yellow lights. They stumble over each other for a seat on a beat-up old school bus that takes them to their day of work. They rent rusted-out trailers lined up on dirt paths behind chain-link fences. Rent is $1,000 a month, and much of the leftover money gets sent home.
The machines will take the jobs of some of the most vulnerable workers, notes Moreno.
Yolanda Perez is 65 years old. She no longer works in the groves, but her husband still does, and she worries about what will happen if he loses his job. "He has picked oranges for more than 40 years. What else can he do?" she wonders. "He is not young anymore and can't get a job picking tomatoes. Tomato picking is very fast work. You run a lot. He can't keep up."
Twenty-two-year-old Olympio Norteiga says he can make $80 a day at the height of the orange harvesting season. He says he sends money to his family in Guatemala but worries about his future: "Now I can send money home to my family. What will happen when the machines come?"
Other workers have heard about the coming machines and are not concerned, but Moreno says those people out of necessity are thinking only in the short term: "Even a year or two is long, long time away. They have daily problems to deal with. Their goals are more immediate. It's hard to mobilize people when they are just working to survive."
The low status of farmworkers adds to the problems. Moreno says that most farmworkers themselves are embarrassed about the kind of work they do. "Farm work is a job that deserves recognition and respect," he insists. "My kids feel ashamed and low about the time I used to work in the fields. Our own communities need to feel more proud of what they do. Farm work is diminished in a real bad way. When you ask them, ‘What do you do?' they don't consider this is a job. That's not fair. It's because they're not appreciated. There's no recognition."
Machines have been replacing people ever since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and workers' survival strategies have varied. Nearly 200 years ago when mechanical looms were introduced, English textile workers reacted violently, burning factories and smashing the machines. For seven years the workers, dubbed "The Luddites," committed acts of sabotage, and the movement spread throughout the country. Eventually a law was passed declaring that the destruction of a new loom was punishable by death.
More recently and closer to home, when tractors and mechanical harvesters put African-American sharecroppers out of work in the early 1900s, they left the South and poured into Northern cities looking for work, which they found in factories in cities like Detroit and Chicago. Regarding the period known as the "Great Migration," Kenneth Goings, professor of African-American history at the University of Memphis, says that the sharecroppers were completely unprepared for their new lives. The effects of the move were devastating. "I wouldn't want to downplay the disruption it had," says Goings. "All of a sudden there was alcoholism, drug abuse, abandoned children and divorce. It was a major social dislocation. Home, family and church don't travel very well in migrations." The full ramifications of that displacement weren't apparent until the urban unrest of the 1960s.
For the citrus industry, the search for mechanization is not new, fueled by fears of a shrinking labor pool. As early as 1955, several Rube Goldberg inventions were tested, running the gamut from a water cannon on wheels to putting workers aloft in baskets. In a 1959 industry film the narrator stands in a grove, dressed in a white, short-sleeve shirt, bow tie and thick, black-rimmed glasses. He boasts about the benefits of mechanical harvesting made necessary by an unpredictable labor supply. Cheerful banjo music plays in the background. "How do these machines compare with hand labor?" he asks. "Of course there are problems to overcome. But is there any way to speed up a hand operation without hiring more help? Certainly machines will be refined and improved, new development will come as time passes. Labor supply and demand are not always to the liking of the grower -- no, not every season, at least in these changing times."
The 1950s labor shortage never materialized, and research on harvesting machines ended within the decade. Again today, though, growers are talking about a labor shortage. Grower Greg Gaskins says in this booming economy, many farmworkers are leaving the groves for higher-paying construction jobs. Many smaller groves in the central part of the state are being sold off and turned into housing developments. This shortage of workers is driving up wages, and Gaskins can't count on getting enough help.;;"If there is a rumor that another grower is going to pay a nickel -- a nickel -- more for a box, they'll jump," he says. "I'll lose all my people. I used to be able to talk, to negotiate. I can't let my oranges rot on the tree. We've got to find another alternative. I can't afford to pay more. Workers can't increase their productivity."
"There is no labor shortage," insists Moreno. "They should pay more. We have a society that has been dreaming about how to have food without having farmworkers."
Some may see an irony in Moreno's fight to save jobs that are back-breaking, dangerous and low paid. And Gaskins, for his part, tries to offer a small reassurance, insisting that all the jobs won't be eliminated. "I'll still need workers," he says, "to operate and maintain the machines."