What Yuridia Domingo Martinez recalled from her time at a north Florida tomato farm is both illegal and common.
“We were all working, and the tractor would drive by to spray pesticides,” she said. “We would get so nauseous … It was really bad. I spent about three weeks throwing up.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 417 farmworkers died nationwide in 2016 from work-related injuries. By U.S. Government Accountability Office estimations, 15 were children.
Dangerous working conditions are nearly impossible to fight. Agricultural workers are exempt from key federal labor laws, including the right to unionize, and many fear job loss if they complain.
Domingo Martinez, who is originally from Guatemala, found new employment at The Family Garden, Jordan Brown’s farm in Gainesville. In 2013, this farm became the first Food Justice-certified farm in the South.
It remains the only one, with five others across the U.S.
Brown was initially exposed to farmworker injustice while seeking help at another farm for his sweet potato harvest.
“I got to know this group of men and found out that they hadn’t been paid in a while and that they were actually living in a walk-in cooler at the packing shed where they worked,” Brown said. “Doing hard work for low wages, I think that that’s usually the better side of farm work.
“On the worse side is, sometimes people have had their wages stolen. They’ve been poisoned by chemicals. They’ve been in horrible accidents and then not have any way to get medical attention. There’s been a lot of people that have gotten hurt, killed, extorted, kidnapped, exploited — and a lot of it goes unrecorded because a lot of the people are here in this country illegally.”
The Food Justice certification, launched in 2010 by the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP), contains dozens of farmworker rights not granted by law, including collective bargaining, access to adequate medical care and at least one rest day weekly. It also protects farmworkers’ children (employers must facilitate school attendance and offer enough compensation to cover childcare during work hours), and chemicals like the one that poisoned Domingo Martinez are prohibited.
These rights create new costs for certified farmers at a time when the industry is tremendously strained. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue recently testified to the House Agriculture Committee that American farmers’ debt has risen to $409 billion, a level not seen since the 1980s when thousands of farms collapsed under more than $200 billion of debt.
Food businesses can also obtain the certification, alleviating pressure on farmers by guaranteeing fair prices and negotiations, AJP General Coordinator Leah Cohen said.
She acknowledged certification might not be immediately feasible for the entire industry, but this is a start.
“Our ultimate hope is that the food system would be transformed into one that’s really empowering for people all throughout the food system,” Cohen said, adding that Food Justice certification is shaping the industry by saying, “‘This is a high bar, this is something we can work towards — and there are farms and businesses that can actually achieve it.’”
Brown said although getting certified adds tens of thousands of dollars to his annual costs, it’s his responsibility to do what’s right.
“I think it depends on how you look at life, and if you’re just here to get the most out of it and screw as many people as you can, then you probably wouldn’t wanna be doing this,” Brown said. “But if you want to somehow make a difference — even if it’s a small difference or a difference in maybe a few people’s lives … then I think that it’s a good set of standards to follow.”
Brown believes this farming model is dependent on the consumer.
“As long as the vast majority of consumers demand the cheapest possible goods … without taking other factors into consideration, it wouldn’t be feasible,” he said.
AJP’s Cohen agrees.
“There’s many, many people who are exploited when we make choices that don’t include asking that question of ‘Whose voice is missing? What is the condition of the people who brought me this food to my table? And how can I make a choice that supports their quality of life as well as mine?’” she said.
The Family Garden’s produce can be purchased Saturday mornings at the Alachua County Farmers’ Market, 5920 NW 13th St. Consumers can also support the farm by asking grocery stores to stock Food Justice-certified food. But, Brown said, joining the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program is most helpful.
CSA members pay $21 to $58 for a week’s produce box— depending on size (mini, family or double) and whether they pay up front or in installments. This commitment helps cover investment costs — seeds, fertilizer, equipment — and keeps the farm stable through seasonal fluctuations.
CSA member Donna Cohen said one of the benefits of joining something so local is seeing direct community impact.
“It’s an act of resistance, period,” she said.
Donna Cohen believes people just aren’t aware of this alternative to exploitative food sources.
“I don’t blame anyone, because it’s hard to be aware of so many things,” she said. “But I guess I’ve latched onto this because there is the opportunity in Gainesville to be aware of that, and so it’s something I can directly support.”
Domingo Martinez has benefited from this support.
“It’s much better, because here, it isn’t chemical. It isn’t harmful for people,” Domingo Martinez said. “And the boss is a great person. To me, it’s all nice, and like I say to him, I won’t leave the job until he fires me.”
Domingo Martinez is 31, and as her laughter cut across the tractor’s rumble and bird calls, she glanced with humor at the future.
“Meanwhile,” she said, “I’m going to become an old lady here.”