Local News

Woman: Workers picked tomatoes as pesticide sprayed

Posted September 10, 2008 3:45 p.m. EDT
Updated September 10, 2008 7:16 p.m. EDT

— A woman testified Wednesday that she and other workers were forced to pick tomatoes on a Brunswick County farm shortly after they had been sprayed with pesticides.

Francisca Herrera's testimony came in the second day of a hearing by the North Carolina Pesticide Board into possible violations by the manager of a farm owned by commercial tomato grower Ag-Mart. Jeff Oxley is accused of more than 200 violations for allegedly forcing workers back in the fields too soon after pesticides were applied.

State officials began to investigate the pesticide use in 2004 after several workers, including Herrera, gave birth to babies with deformities. Herrera's son has no arms or legs.

Speaking through an interpreter, the 22-year-old woman said working in the Ag-Mart fields would make her ill, but she was told that she needed to work.

"Even on my first day, I remember getting a headache almost immediately, and I had never got a headache like this," she testified. "My boss would always be saying, 'You came to this country to work, not to rest.'"

Herrera had to quiet her son, Carlitos, at the beginning of her testimony, and her husband wound up taking the boy outside the building after defense attorney Mark Ash objected to her holding the boy in her arms as she testified.

Tomato plants were sometimes wet with pesticides when workers were told to pick the fruit, she said. The wind also blew pesticides on the workers as they picked fruit several rows of plants away from where trucks were spraying, she said.

"I did not see any signs at that time that indicate you shouldn't go close or shouldn't touch or anything like that," she said.

Under cross-examination, Herrera said that Oxley usually wasn't in the field when she was working and that she never saw him give instructions to anyone about spraying the fields.

Earlier Wednesday, a state investigator went through the spraying and planting spreadsheets he used to conclude that workers were sent too early into sprayed fields in roughly 200 cases.

The state rested its case late Wednesday.

The case has been continued until Nov. 5.

Ag-Mart has denied any wrongdoing but settled out of court with Herrera. Defense attorneys argued that Herrera’s testimony should not have been allowed because the state needs to prove exactly when the fields were sprayed and where in the field the workers were picking.

If the Pesticide Board finds that Oxley violated state and federal regulations by forcing workers into the fields too soon after spraying, he could be fined up to $100,000.