WINTER GARDEN — Some of the black-and-white images are haunting, as if they were taken a century ago, when farms were as common as outhouses and one-room schoolhouses. Others look like they were taken yesterday in the few groves and processing plants left in the area.
An art exhibit at Winter Garden City Hall reminds citizens of the lucrative farms that dotted West Orange County for centuries and gave thousands of farm laborers a way to provide for their families.
“The Last Harvest — A History and Tribute to the Life and Work of the Farmworkers on Lake Apopka” is a collaboration of organizations, students and professionals to preserve this part of agricultural history, and although the photographs are 16 years old, they paint a picture of a farmworker’s life that continues today.
Peter Schreyer, executive director of Crealdé School of Art in Winter Park, which organized the photographers, said the exhibit is still just as relevant in 2014 as it was when the pictures were taken in 1998.
“People still come and relate to it and talk about it,” Schreyer said. “There’s nothing wrong with agricultural work and farm work, and I think what a lot of people don’t know is the hardship of the workers. … It’s important for people to know that there is still agriculture in Florida.”
The exhibit is a day in the life of the workers at the Apopka farms: Employees in the cabbage fields of Zellwin Farms, which produced two harvests each year in the fertile Lake Apopka muck. A man unloading packaged carrots from an industrial vacuum sealer prior to transferring them to the pre-cooler. Farmworker Larry Simmons stacking crates of corn onto pallets —50 ears of corn per crate, 32 crates per pallet — at Lust Farms packinghouse. Women sorting washed radishes by quality at the Long Farms packinghouse. The harvesting machine at Stroup Farms that allowed the grading and packing of the celery in the fields.
Most of the photos were taken by the workers’ teenage children; a few were taken by two AmeriCorps students.
The youth attended photography classes through Crealdé, learning about content and composition, and were given cameras and lenses to capture this final season of muck farming.
“Life was really hard, but there’s a richness to it,” Schreyer said. “The families had a lot of strength.”
One photo stands out in Schreyer’s mind — it depicts a field early in the morning.
“I told the student, ‘It’s really beautiful,’” he said. “Amongst the hardship of the work, he was able to see the beauty in the fields.”
Besides Crealdé instructors Schreyer and Faith Amon, photographers were Felipe Gonzalez, Michael Hinkley, Tirso Moreno Jr., Ellen Cunningham, Lidia Alameda, Sarah Sullivan, Tania Rosado, Erica Reyes, Mireya Valle, Sister Ann Kendrick, Patricia Alameda, Joel Cabazos and Diomar Alvarez. A photo of the group is included in the City Hall exhibit.
A grant from the Florida Humanities Council in St. Petersburg paid for much of the exhibit, which includes 46 photographs. Because of space constraints at City Hall, about three-quarters of them are on display.
“I made sure the whole of the story was being told,” Schreyer said. “They all have great stories. That’s what it’s all about.”
Contact Amy Quesinberry Rhode at [email protected].
IN THEIR WORDS
The display includes written stories of individual farm workers, too.
• Willie Mae Williams: “I started to work in the carrot house in Zellwood when I was 18 or 19. Before that, in the 1960s, I used to go help out in the fields on weekends or in the evening time after school. Hoeing or cutting radishes, chicory, Romaine. My aunt would pick us up, and she’d leave sandwiches and water in the car for the littlest children. The oldest ones would get out and work. You didn’t rip around and play; you did what you were supposed to do. That’s the way your parents brought you up. They brought you up the way their parents brought you up. So you learned how to do that kind of work.”
• Louis Nicisse: “I came to the United States in 1980 looking for a better life. I came by boat with 23 other people. It took 11 days to get here because it was so stormy. We carried big barrels of drinking water on the boat to survive. We learned to use water wisely. When I got here, I was put in jail for two days. I have seven children in Haiti, but it’s very hard to bring them here. Still, life is better in the United States. If you’re not lazy, you can find work.”
• Jeanette Brokenborough: “We used to get burnt pretty bad. Our face be as black as the muck. And when we got ready to go and take our bath, you could tell you went to the muck. We used to say, ‘I wonder if we really inhaling the muck?’ And we was. Especially when the wind came up — if you didn’t cover up like that, it went in you. I never got sick from it. All the chemicals that I knowed that they was using, I never got sick off them.”
• Luckner Millien: “When Haitians started to come here back in the 1970s, the majority came without legal documents, including me. Until the spring of ’78, they used to come here, get off the boat and find their way. If they got caught by the INS, they can be put in jail for a couple of days or maybe a week, depending on the circumstances. After the spring of ’78, they started to seriously detain people. I spent over three months in jail. That three months was like a hundred years to me because of the way it was. Can you imagine you are in a jail cell in an area where you know nobody? Your family back home doesn’t know where are you, what’s happening to you. You have no way of communication with them, no communication with the outside world.”
HISTORY OF THE FARMS
Exhibit visitors can read the history of the agricultural businesses, written by Dr. Ronald I. Habin, an anthropologist, and learn why they were started and why they were bought out and stopped.
In response to food shortages during World War II, the Florida Legislature created the Zellwood Drainage and Water Control District to oversee the diking and draining of 20,000 acres of the northern shores of Lake Apopka. When the north shore was drained, the rich muck lake bottom became prime farmland.
For close to 60 years, laborers worked the farms, cultivating and harvesting, packing and shipping lettuce, radishes, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, broccoli, leeks, onions, carrots and sweet corn.
Habin writes: “By the 1970s, Lake Apopka had become so severely polluted from the farms that it was best known for being the home of alligators with mutated reproductive organs and having a distinct lime-green color.”
The legislature conducted numerous surveys, determined the farms were affecting the lake and created the Lake Apopka Restoration Act of 1996, which, through the St. Johns Water Management District, permitted the state to buy out the farms at a cost of $65 million. Another $26 million was contributed by the Federal Wetlands Reserve Program with the intention of cleaning up the lake by ending phosphorus and fertilizer emissions from the farms’ wastewater runoff.
“July 1, 1998, marked the day when the lives of 2,500 farm workers and their families were irrevocably changed,” Habin writes. “History will record that date as the last harvest on the Lake Apopka muck farms.”
Thirteen major farms were purchased, and the state paid the landholders more than $100 million to cease their agricultural businesses.
As part of the deal, the farm workers were supposed to receive adequate retraining in classes such as construction work, truck driving, computer operation and cosmetology, Habin said, but “precious few people graduated from a local vocational technology school.” Many dropped out because “training took too long and their bills were coming due.”
And while some found work in local nurseries, Habin said, many had to leave Central Florida “to look for the work they have known all their lives.”
SEE FOR YOURSELF
The Crealde School of Art and city of Winter Garden have collaborated for an Art in Public Places exhibit: “The Last Harvest: A History and Tribute to the Life and Work of the Farmworkers on Lake Apopka.”
WHEN: Runs through Nov. 14
WHERE: Winter Garden City Hall, 300 W. Plant St.