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One of Miami's Oldest Organic Farms Accused of Racially Abusing, Underpaying Workers

One of Miami's Oldest Organic Farms Accused of Racially Abusing, Underpaying Workers
Photo by Tim Elfrink
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Stanley Glaser swats at mosquitoes outside his weatherbeaten house, which is shaded by towering mango trees and lush tropical ferns. Glaser learned to till a few small fields while living here in the early '80s. Now the home sits at the center of an 20-acre South Miami-Dade oasis that churns out tons of organic produce sold at Whole Foods and the Coconut Grove Farmers' Market, where he's one of the longest-standing tenants.

Glaser cuts an unusual figure for a farmer. Eating a mostly raw, vegan diet for more than 40 years has left him extremely wiry. He quotes the Bhagavad Gita and throws around Persian proverbs. And he says his interests lie more in changing the world than making a buck. "We've been spreading this message about organic growing for decades," the 72-year-old says, "and the world has listened."

In other words, he's not the kind of guy you'd expect to find embroiled in an ugly row over stolen wages and racist abuse. But in a trio of federal lawsuits, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project at Florida Legal Services and two former employees say Glaser brazenly ripped off dozens of workers — mostly migrants without documents or a firm grasp of English — for tens of thousands of dollars in overtime pay. They also contend that he allowed supervisors to verbally abuse farmworkers despite repeated complaints and that he fired workers who spoke up.

"I left my country to come here to do better for my family, to provide a better quality of life," says Debora Velasquez, a Guatemalan-born worker who is one of the plaintiffs. "But there were too many bad things happening at this farm to my co-workers and to me. I couldn't remain silent."

Glaser denies those charges. "I'm being extorted," he says, "and the federal government is helping to extort me."

The lawsuits are a tawdry chapter in the fascinating life story of a man who arguably brought the modern idea of organic farming to South Florida.

Born in Florida in 1944 but raised in New Jersey, Glaser studied to be an architect, earning a degree from the renowned Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. He graduated in the heart of the Vietnam War era and joined the Peace Corps, where his engineering skills could be put to use.

The Corps sent Glaser to Iran a decade before militant Islamists waged bloody revolution there. Working under the shah, Glaser spent a few years planning new projects in a remote province. "I was a city planner at the age of 22," he says. "I learned Persian quickly, and I looked like I could be Iranian, so I blended right in."

In fact, he would have stayed were it not impossible to date as a Westerner in the strictly religious Muslim nation. Instead, after his Corps term ended, he spent several years wandering through Pakistan and India, often sleeping outdoors.

"I started thinking about how to live outside of society," Glaser says, "how to craft my own philosophy,"

By the mid-'70s, Glaser made his way back to the States, but he found himself too deeply changed to make it in his native land. "I was just totally disconnected with society here," he says. "I got so far out of society that I never quite got back in, to be honest."

He spent months hitchhiking up and down the East Coast and then he kept going right through Central and South America into Bolivia and Ecuador, where he lived in the Andes for a few years. During that time, he says, he was perfecting a new vision for how to live, based mostly around diet.

"You can only control so many things in this world, and most of them have to do with what's coming in and out of this orifice," he says, pointing to his mouth. "You breathe, but that's taken care of. So then it's about what you say and what you eat."

By the time he made it back to Florida in 1979, he was practicing a strictly raw, vegan diet and beginning to learn how to farm organically — decades before the trend took off nationally. He lived in a tent near a South Dade field, where he studied old farming books.

Eventually, he moved into a house southwest of Zoo Miami off SW 137th Avenue, renting it for $250 a month and farming eight acres on the property. After Hurricane Andrew, he bought the house, where he still lives today, plus another ten acres. Every weekend, Glaser set up shop in Coconut Grove, where long lines began forming for his fresh produce, processed nut butters, and juices. He was ahead of his time.

"I consider a lot of the growth in organic produce as coming from the seeds that we planted down here," he says. "You know, people come to Florida from all over the world. We were spreading this message much earlier than most anyone else, and they took it with them."

Today Glaser Organic Farms employs about 70 workers in the fields and at a processing center that produces everything from raw coconut oil to organic chickpea-and-carrot croquettes. The way Glaser describes it, his dream of clean living and a healthy diet has become a much-copied reality. "We've been working toward the common good for decades," he says.

But federal investigators, who began probing the farm five years ago, tell a very different story. Their first case started in 2012 after a worker attending a farmworker association meeting in Homestead complained about missing pay. The U.S. Department of Labor investigated and cited Glaser for failing to pay 21 employees minimum wage; the feds ordered him to compensate them for $8,171.90 in missing wages. He agreed.

That same year, Debora Velasquez took a job at the farm. Her story echoes that of the hundreds of migrant workers who keep fields planted and harvests picked across the Redland. She was born in Guatemala City in 1981 and raised in the town of Escuintla, where her father raised cattle. Velasquez trained as a nurse, but when she was 19, her mom became sick, so Velasquez decided to follow her husband to the United States in hopes of making more money. "They said that in Florida, you could easily find work in agriculture, that jobs were available where you could learn," she says. "It was an easy decision to make."

She worked in fields and packing houses for more than a decade before starting at Glaser. Inside the organic kitchen, though, she says she was quickly subjected to abuse — much of it at the hands of Tracy Lawrence, a supervisor. Lawrence and her two assistants called Velasquez "burro," "negra," and "chocolate one," referring to her dark skin, she says. Other employees called her "my black piggie" and "little monkey," she claims.

Lawrence also berated her, suspended her without cause, and once held a pair of scissors to her neck, motioning that she'd cut her throat, the feds say. While she let lighter-skinned employees eat free food at lunch, Velasquez was denied that privilege.

In 2014, Velasquez filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC, and soon thereafter, the feds say, Glaser Farms fired her.

The next year, alerted by Velasquez, the feds returned to look into Glaser's books again. This time, they found a bigger problem: He had failed to pay overtime to at least 56 employees, stiffing them out of $48,774. What's more, the feds say, he also didn't report thousands in earnings from his employees to the IRS, resulting in serious shortfalls in those workers' social security withholdings.

Glaser met with the EEOC but refused to settle the cases. In November 2015, the feds sued, alleging racial discrimination and unjust termination; the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project filed a separate suit over the claims of missing overtime pay and tax fraud; they allege that at least 200 other workers were also denied overtime. The next May, a third suit was filed by another worker, Rosa Carbonell, who had spent eight years working in Glaser's kitchen; she says she was robbed of thousands of dollars in overtime and federal benefits. (Her case was settled earlier in January.)

Velasquez says getting fired from Glaser's farm after complaining about conditions there has left her life in shambles. She's struggled to find seasonal work to support her three children, aged 14, 6, and 4. And she recently divorced her husband. She's still undocumented and worries about her future now that Donald Trump has taken office. But she doesn't regret going to the feds, she says.

"All I could think about were all the people who would be coming in the future to work on this farm and that they don't deserve to have that kind of treatment," she says, speaking by phone during a break from a temporary gig she found sorting beans at a Homestead plant. "That's why I've fought."

Resting under a shade tree at his farm on a recent weekday, Glaser declines to talk about the specifics of the cases, though he calls them "absurd...This woman made everything up." (His attorneys also declined to comment.) He says the government's claims go against all the ethically ingrained practices he's brought to his farm.

The case has cost him several hundred thousand dollars and — more important — shaken his faith in people.

"If we have any vices, it's in trusting people way too much," he says. "There's a saying in Iran: 'Trust in Allah, but tie up your camels.' That's what I've been learning from this experience."

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a photo incorrectly labeled as Glaser Farms.

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