CLINGING TO THE VINE: This year's paltry tomato crop is putting added stress on the Spartan existences of migrant farm workers and families.


 Between two rusting mobile homes in a dirt road migrant camp, a small gathering of seasoned workers, the strong backs that support this area's farm economy, pray on bended knee.

From his place of honor under a precariously hung 60-watt light bulb, Father Demetrio Lorden from Our Lady of Guadalupe church asks for prayer requests.

Alicia Castillo, 50, answers first: "I pray for the tomato plants, that they will be healthy, so there will be enough work for everyone."

A murmur of understanding agreement weaves through the congregation, knitting them closer together. This community needs a good harvest. Everyone knows the current crop is slim pickings, and the plants for the next harvest are showing signs of trouble.

Maria Garcia, 34, whose husband is a crew supervisor in the tomato fields, bows her head a half nod lower.

"Lord, hear our prayer."

For most in the congregation, tomatoes are their next paycheck. Some are pickers; some work in the packaging house; some are truckers who take the fruit to market. They all know times are tough.

For a field worker paid by the bucket, Mother Nature can make or break a paycheck.

"In a good season, an experienced picker can pick maybe about 350 buckets a day, at 45 cents a bucket that's about $150, before taxes," explains Garcia. "Right now people are lucky to do 150 buckets a day. That's only $67. In six days that's just over $400. And all the same taxes everyone pays comes out of that."

Fewer tomatoes mean less work in the packaging house, and less produce for the small trucking business to haul.

"I asked my husband when is the last time he's seen it this bad, and he said since forever," Garcia adds.

After Mass, the smells of just-fried, homemade corn tortillas and light rain chase away the mosquitoes that everyone pretended to ignore during service. Over cold sodas and paper plates filled with tostadas, the talk turns to bad weather and disease.

For the tomatoes to set, night temperatures need to be below 65 degrees. Florida has seen record-breaking night temperatures in the mid 70s. The recent warm, wet mornings increase the likelihood of disease. An older picker says he's seen too many white flies, which carry Tomato Yellow Leaf Curl Virus from plant to plant. Others say they've seen harmful bacteria spots on the leaves.

"The workers are right to be concerned," says Dr. Phyllis Gilreath, an extension agent for the University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service.

To make matters worse, the depressed housing market has made the workers' fall-back jobs in construction hard to come by. And because of national immigration crackdowns, migrants who can't find enough work are afraid to go back home to wait out a bad year where the cost of living is lower. Many fear they would never make it back.

"It's a real crisis. These people are between rock and fire," says Father Lorden. The demand on the church's food pantry and thrift shop has boomed beyond what the church anticipated.

"On Saturday morning it looks like Wal-Mart here," he says, "I don't know how they get by. They just do what they can. But they will get by ... God willing."