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.