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Hunger, worry follow freeze

Farm workers can't pick enough crops to feed their families after the damage left by January's freeze.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2003


BALM -- Dora Cruz stood inside the pantry at Good Samaritan Mission, shaking her head as she took stock of the bare shelves and the hungry children crying down the hall.

By 11 a.m. Tuesday, Cruz and her volunteers at Good Samaritan, an independent Christian mission serving Hillsborough County farmworker families, had given out the last of 175 food bags containing rice, beans, flour and cooking oil.

Yet dozens of families were still waiting down the hall, hoping for food to get them through another week with little or no work in the fields.

The freeze that blew through Hillsborough County's fruit and produce farms recently didn't do as much damage as owners and agricultural experts feared. But the freeze combined with a colder-than-normal winter has significantly depleted the strawberries and tomatoes ready to be picked.

Fewer ripened crops means less work for migrant men, many of whom have families. Less work means less money for food. And less food means more people at Dora Cruz's door.

"We are cleaned out!" lamented Cruz. "We are desperate, because the crops are frozen, so we have double the families coming to us for help. I really worry about the children."

By the end of Tuesday, more than 400 families from as far away as Wauchula and Plant City had passed through the mission. But all Cruz had to offer was chocolate powdered drink mix and a few donated pastries. She even gave away a few restaurant-sized cans of pizza sauce, although the mothers who received them weren't sure what to do with all that sauce and no rice.

"It was so hard," said Cruz, whose mission works with local churches to serve thousands of families throughout the year.

"Necesito comida," said Tereso Martinez, 26, who works picking strawberries in Dover. "Porque no puedo ganar bastante dinero."

I need food, because I can't earn enough money.

Martinez said he has been working just two to three days a week since the freeze.

Ricardo Cruz, 50, usually picks strawberries from farms in Wimauma. But he has been without steady work for two weeks, and wonders how he'll feed his family and pay the $450 rent for a dilapidated trailer.

The peak harvest for strawberries usually runs from mid February through the end of March, but farmers aren't so sure this year.

"We were well behind our harvest date even before the freeze," said Chip Hinton, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. "The good news is, we expect to have fairly good production in the next few weeks."

There are about 125 strawberry farmers in Hillsborough, totaling 7,000 acres. They lost between one-third and one-half of their harvest for the week following the freeze, Hinton said.

That's about 300,000 to 400,000 flats of strawberries, in a region that accounts for between 15 and 20 percent of the nation's strawberry production -- and most of the winter production.

Jeff Haines, citrus manager of Deseret Farms, which has about 8,000 acres of tomatoes and citrus in Ruskin, said the cold winter has forced his company to cut the hours of many of the 100 workers who pick tomatoes, because the tomatoes just aren't ready.

"We've tried to give them work picking citrus," Haines said. "But it's not been easy."

The National Weather Service in Ruskin expects temperatures will continue to be lower than normal over the next few weeks, but forecaster Jason Deese said the next week shows no threat of severe cold.

Still, local farmers say they won't rest easy until they get through early March. Neither will Dora Cruz, who is asking churches and other local groups to donate beans and rice for the families of Good Samaritan Mission.

"If another freeze comes, then we have to worry about blankets, too," she said. "But whoever is hungry and needs food, we will serve them. We have to. They need us."

-- The Good Samaritan Mission is at 14920 Balm-Wimauma Road; call 813-634-7136 or 634-4775.

Hillsborough County produces 15 to 20 percent of the nation's strawberries.

-- FARMS: 125

-- ACREAGE: 7,000

-- LOST IN FREEZE: a third to half of the harvest, 300,000 to 400,000 flats of strawberries.

-- Source: Florida Strawberry Growers Association

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