By Michael E. Miller
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On this day the main topic is an old standby: the lack of action in what should be one of the busiest times of the year. Despite the seemingly unending clog of human traffic and the grinding clank of the loading machinery, Palmer can see from his numbers that demand is not what it should be. Moreover, he's hearing about it from unhappy vendors. "From last year to this year I've seen this market really, really struggle," he says, turning the corner into the dark, cavernous interior of the Florida Fruit warehouse. "I'd never seen people going out of business this time of year before, but this year three small guys did. And the summer killed quite a few people." Walking over to an antique-looking cash register to drop off a report, he greets a man in a Marlins cap. "What's up today, Ivan?" Palmer asks. "Strawberries?" The two sort out prices for honeydews, watermelons, oranges, and grapefruit. Underneath the scream of the machinery and the shouts of the men working, there's the incessant roar from the coolers, the great walk-in refrigerators that hold most of the fresh product. Workmen steering pallet jacks A battery-powered walk-behind cargo carriers A wear heavy coats and stocking caps to protect them from the cold and damp. Out in the heat of the loading dock they look absurd, but warm clothes are essential for anyone who spends much time in a produce warehouse's frigid zones.
Palmer, who wears a blue jacket that bears the name of his college soccer team, occasionally ducks into the coolers himself, checking the product. Produce people are known for being compulsively tactile, feeling, prodding, and squeezing the merchandise at every opportunity. The P. Tavilla coolers next door to Florida Fruit give Palmer a chance to indulge himself with first-class product. "They have oranges and stuff from California A Sunkist, which is A-number one," he says, opening a box and extracting a smooth, succulent-looking Valencia. "They're different from Florida's, much more expensive. Florida is producing mainly navels now." He replaces the orange and walks quickly through the twenty-foot-high coolers, ticking off brand names and showing off samples as he goes: "Trout is a good, good brand of apple, the best. Dole pineapple, Andy Boy broccoli, they're all premium brands. Tavilla carries a lot of stuff that other people don't have. You won't see California artichokes many places. You won't see anise many places." He turns and heads back out to the loading dock, looking for more prices. P. Tavilla's business is evidently holding up; its end of the dock is a madhouse, and Palmer has to wait his turn for what he calls "these big corporate guys," a joking reference to P. Tavilla's overseas owner, Britain's Albert Fischer Group.
Things are quieter across NW Thirteenth Avenue, in the office of Select Tomato. Select is a tomato repacker, one of two remaining Dade outfits that buy tomatoes by the truckload, grade them by color, and repack them for sale in smaller quantities. Its roots, like those of Florida Fruit, go back almost to the very beginning of the Miami market, to a time when the market itself was surrounded by tomato fields. Today a hand-tinted photo of Select founder Steve Danna hangs over the desk of his grandson and namesake. This morning the younger Danna, a heavyset, gray-bearded man of 50, ponders the vagaries of produce supply and demand between drags on a Salem. His attitude seems, if anything, cheerfully fatalistic.
"The hurricanes this year ruined us," he says. "The ones that hit the islands, like Grand Cayman, St. Thomas, Barbados, Martinique. We ship to all those points, and we lost 35, 38 percent of our export business this year because some of those islands were really devastated." The phone rings and Danna picks it up, stubbing out his cigarette in an almost-full ashtray: "Select Tomato." Down on the floor a paper bag begins moving around under what seems to be its own power, until a cat's head pops out and peers curiously around. Danna quickly completes a terse and arcane transaction and hangs up.
Palmer asks him what he's heard about the Florida tomato crop.
"From what I understand, the whole state's lighter in acreage this year," Danna says. "This NAFTA thing, they gotta do something. But we laugh, because all these American companies invest in Mexican farms. They're the guys that are screaming the loudest about the NAFTA situation, and they're fighting their own money."
"Why would they do that?"
"It doesn't make sense. Except a lot of people don't know. Maybe it makes 'em look good to the American public to make a lot of noise about it. But the NAFTA made no sense when they passed it and it makes no sense now. The whole thing amazes me. The labor cost is the whole issue. They can plant an acre of tomatoes on drip irrigation and plastic in Mexico for about $500 an acre, and here it costs $4600. It's all labor, it's not materials. You're talking a tremendous difference. They tell me labor costs in Mexico around twenty percent what it runs here."