Top 100 Vegetable Grower Jon Esformes Is A Champion For Worker Rights
Labor has been at the top of many growers’ minds — for better or for worse — in recent years. While many have struggled to secure a stable workforce and are anxiously awaiting improvements to current immigration policies, Jon Esformes, operating partner of Pacific Tomato Growers in Palmetto, FL, ranking on our Top 100 Growers list in the Southeast, has faced these challenges head on, and developed solutions to help his labor force thrive despite the mounting pressure.
Through a strategic partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida, Esformes has cemented his role as a champion for agricultural workers’ rights in the state.
For acreage information on growers in the North, West, Southeast, and Southwest, click on the links below.
Editor’s Note: The information used in the charts for this year’s Top 100 was compiled based on grower feedback, industry analysis, and estimates of past production.
Securing A Labor Force
Esformes has witnessed the effects of the shrinking labor pool, and shares a similar sentiment held by many growers across the country: “We need comprehensive immigration reform,” he says.
“The voice seems to have gotten shattered somewhere, but the bottom line is that if the U.S. is going to produce its own fruits and vegetables, we need labor. We need comprehensive immigration reform that acknowledges these people that are already in the country, and that provides a sustainable source of future workers through a sustainable, fair, safe, guestworker program.”
Recognizing the value of a secure labor force, Pacific Tomato Growers reached out to, and then signed an agreement in 2010 with the CIW, a worker-based human rights organization located in Immokalee, FL. It was the first formal agreement between the CIW and a major tomato grower.
As outlined in a press release from the CIW, the principles of the agreement with Pacific Tomato Growers “include a joint — and, when need be, external — complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program, and a worker-to-worker education process aimed at ensuring that farmworkers themselves are active participants in the social responsibility efforts.”
Esformes says he felt an effort like this one was long overdue.
“The Florida tomato industry had dealt with the coalition through industry groups, so I asked my partners and family members if anyone had actually individually met anyone from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and if anyone had had a conversation with them,” he says.
“It was very clear that we had left it up to the industry groups to do it, and we agreed that we should meet with them directly, and get to know them. That perpetuated what I call ‘a cup of coffee.’ My COO Billy Heller and I sat down with Lucas Benitez, the founder of the coalition, and realized that our goals were the same.”
So what were those goals exactly?
“What we’re after is to create a safe, fair, work environment for people to come to work, do their jobs, and be treated with the dignity that all human beings are entitled to, and then go home to their families,” he says.