Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

ON THE MIGRANT TRAIL; GIFTS for the SEASON Follow Two Friends on a Mission to Improve the Plight of People Who Toil on North Florida Farms

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

ON THE MIGRANT TRAIL; GIFTS for the SEASON Follow Two Friends on a Mission to Improve the Plight of People Who Toil on North Florida Farms

Article excerpt

Byline: BRIDGET MURPHY

A Dodge pickup with a country club sticker on the back is blazing south on Interstate 95 from Jacksonville while the ladies in the front seats try to explain the reason behind their Sunday morning mission.

"Just ask me that when we're done and you'll understand, because you'll be in love with them, too," says Carol Berg.

"Our whole careers were in the trenches, and this is in the trenches," says Sally Hutchinson.

Crammed behind the retired nurses are enough bags of clothes, shoes, towels, toiletries and other items to supply a small army. And that's what they mean to do.

For about seven years, the childhood friends have visited migrant camps about an hour from their own comfortable homes. They collect tons of donations from churches and friends, storing the goods until they decide to make a Sunday run south during the planting and harvesting seasons from November through May.

The gifts they give to workers reap their own reward. Sally and Carol drive away from the migrant camps feeling filthy and spent, but with an afterglow that warms them a way that writing a check for charity could not.

These migrants have names and stories, hometowns and families. They put a face on the downtrodden, the kind the ladies can conjure on a dreary, frostbitten night and wonder: Are they hungry? Are they cold?

These 60-something blondes swoop in with the energy of women decades younger, and are making plans for their next road trip before the Dodge crosses back into Duval County.

Sally is a former University of Florida nursing professor and author whose research took her to several countries. Besides her nursing experience, Carol led an entrepreneur's life, owning and managing motels, a restaurant and a campground with her husband before their retirement.

The ladies' interaction with migrants helps feed a lust for some of the adventure they miss from their working days. Carol began her work with migrants more than 20 years ago after reading a newspaper story about the conditions migrants endured. Sally joined Carol's efforts after she retired several years ago.

"There's something a little cowgirlish about it," Sally says. "We have very exciting stories that we enjoy."

This Sunday, the ladies will stop in four rural areas of Armstrong and Hastings in St. Johns County. As migrants crowd their tailgate at each camp, the truck will become a little more empty, the ladies' hearts a little more full.

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Experience has given the ladies a taste of how the migrant labor system operates; one they say is much less ridden with worker abuses since a 2005 bust at the Evans Labor Camp in East Palatka.

When they visited that Putnam County camp, they'd see migrants who looked drugged and drunk. A knife came out one time as laborers fought over clothing the ladies were handing out.

"When all the drugs and stuff was going on, it was horrible," Sally says.

Now in prison, the Evans camp owners recruited homeless people and addicts to toil in the fields. They paid low wages before indebting migrants by selling them crack and overpriced beer and cigarettes.

The system still can be one of exploitation, the haves preying on the have-nots with promises of a paycheck, food and a bed.

"They're very friendly and talky, but there are certain things they don't talk about," Carol says of workers they visit these days.

"And we ask them," Sally says.

The way the ladies understand the system, farmers hire crew bosses to handle labor on their land. It's the crew bosses who control the workers' fate since they pay them and arrange for housing, food and transportation. Some of the migrant crews travel together from state to state year after year, following the call to harvest.

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Muddy mounds that will yield potato and cabbage crops edge the country roads the pickup passes on the way to Sunday's first stop. …

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