Farmworkers hit hard by cold snap ask for federal help

Standing atop a ruined tomato patch in Homestead, Fla., advocates for farmworkers on Wednesday called for federal relief to help thousands of farmworkers, who are out of work, money and food in the aftermath of this month's cold snap.

"Gov. Charlie Crist needs to speed up his request for a declaration of a disaster by the federal government. One hundred thousand farmworker families in Florida will be out of work for the next three months," Tirso Moreno, general coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida, told reporters at a press conference.

He estimated that the damage crop from this year's harvest will cost farmworkers about $50 million in lost wages.

The farmworker association and eight other groups said they had sent a letter to Crist outlining their concerns and urging the governor to get the Obama administration to declare the state a federal disaster area.

If the Obama administration makes the disaster declaration, emergency food stamps, disaster unemployment benefits and food will be made available to affected farmworkers, said Rob Williams, director of the Migrant Farmworkers Justice Program at Florida Legal Services.

"The presidential declaration is the first step. Without that, nothing really happens," Williams said.Last winter, state agriculture officials asked for the same assistance for some counties in central Florida after nearly $100 million in crops were damaged by cold weather, said Terry McElroy, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

This year, Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles Bronson has written to Crist about the extensive damage and requested that the state be designated a disaster area.

In addition, the department has asked federal officials for more food and will send it to any area, said McElroy, who noted the hardest hit places from the recent freeze have been Collier and Lee counties.State agriculture officials are continuing to assess the damage caused by the record-breaking cold temperatures that kept much of the state with bone-chilling temperatures for about 10 days. No specific dollar figure has been determined.

"We are working as diligently as we can and hope to finish the assessment within a week," McElroy said.

Ten days ago, Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles Bronson told a House legislative committee that at a minimum, 30 percent of Florida's crops were lost and the losses could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, he said.