Health Care

Ag-Mart workers testify

Nearly four years ago, Francisca Herrera bore a son who had no arms or legs, triggering the largest pesticide prosecution in state history.

On Wednesday, she and the boy's father said they were repeatedly exposed to pesticides while working on a North Carolina tomato farm run by Ag-Mart. Herrera was pregnant at the time.

"It happened morning, noon and evening," Herrera said at a Wednesday state Pesticide Board hearing. Sprayers "would pass by close to where we were working. They didn't care if we were eating."

Herrera's testimony Wednesday marked the first time that workers were heard in the protracted case, which has been watched closely by farming interests, regulators and lawmakers. The case also prompted a new look at state pesticide rules.

Herrera, 22, said she was often told to work in fields that were still wet with pesticides. She said her supervisors ignored her complaints of frequent headaches and stomach pains. "The boss would always be scolding us and telling us that we came to this country to work, not to rest," she said in Spanish.

Her husband, Abraham Candelario, 23, said he and other workers frequently threw tomatoes at pesticide sprayers who came so close that chemicals landed on his skin.

"It burns your skin and your eyes and your nose," he told the Pesticide Board through an interpreter.

The board is conducting a hearing this week to determine whether Ag-Mart, a Florida-based tomato company, violated worker safety laws by forcing workers to labor in freshly sprayed fields. The company is accused of about 200 such violations. At stake are thousands of dollars in fines, plus the reputation of the company.

Ag-Mart says it did not endanger workers on its farms. An international company, it sells tomatoes under the brand names Santa Sweets and Ugly Ripe Ag-Mart and runs farms in Brunswick County and in Florida, New Jersey and Mexico. It employs hundreds of seasonal workers in North Carolina.

When the hearing continues in November, Ag-Mart lawyers say, they will offer testimony from Sostenes Salazar, who worked alongside Herrera in Ag-Mart's fields and bore a child with a deformed jaw in early 2005.

They say Salazar will testify that she was never sprayed.

After the hearing Wednesday, Ag-Mart lawyers said Herrera's testimony proved nothing.

"We think the case fails totally," said Mark A. Ash, a Raleigh lawyer who represents Ag-Mart.

North Carolina officials began investigating Ag-Mart in April 2005 after hearing of three deformed babies born to Ag-Mart workers within six weeks of each other -- including the children of Herrera and Salazar.

Herrera and Candelario, who live in Immokalee, Fla., brought their son, Carlos Candelario, to the hearing. The boy, now almost 4 and known by the nickname "Carlitos," rode in a small stroller, his tiny limbless body draped in a T-shirt.

He laughed and talked to his parents in Spanish as they waited to testify. When his mother took the stand, he screamed for her and had to be carried from the room.

The family declined to speak with a reporter on Wednesday.

Prosthetics won't work

Advocates for the family have said that the child's mind is developing normally, but that his physical deformities are so severe that he cannot even be fitted with prosthetic limbs.

Ag-Mart paid the family a settlement earlier this year, after the family sued claiming that pesticide exposure was to blame for Carlitos' deformities. The company does not accept responsibility for the birth defects.

On Wednesday, Ag-Mart's lawyers brought copies of a 2005 statement that Herrera gave to Florida officials investigating the company's practices there.

That statement -- which Herrera signed but which was written in English by a Florida inspector -- says that she was never exposed to pesticides while working for Ag-Mart. Herrera, who speaks and reads no English, said Wednesday that the document did not reflect her true statement.

She and Candelario came to the United States in 2003 from an impoverished town in the Mexican state of Guerrero, to work in the fields for Ag-Mart.

Herrera left the company shortly before Carlitos was born in 2004.

Candelario left in 2005, but he admitted Wednesday that he returned to the company in 2007 and worked in its fields under a false name. The company fired him a few months ago, after learning that he had not given his true name.

Candelario said he wanted to earn money to support his wife and son -- and another child who is on the way.

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