By J.D. Durkin
When I arrived in southern Florida two weeks ago to cover several days of campaign trail events, I had no way of guessing that a separate national storyline — about packages, postal codes, and pipe bombs — would unfold with the same aggressive timeline just miles away.
As news was breaking across the country about a flurry of pipe bombs directed at high-profile, Democratic targets, my colleague Sam Tadelman and I were meeting with specialty crop growers, off the grid on the edge of the Everglades. News of the suspicious packages felt a world away as I talked to farmers who had suffered under NAFTA because they couldn’t compete with Mexico. Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, both local Republicans, were in attendance at a roundtable at S&L Beans, a three-generation farm in the town of Homestead. At its peak, the farm spanned 7,000 acres. Today, it’s only 2,000 acres.
The day of our visit was 85 degrees and sunny — sunburn territory for me. The story of the farmers in this community is an agonizing one; several who had inherited the farms from their fathers and grandfathers told me that they each encouraged their own sons to find other work. Sal Finocchiaro explained the heart-wrenching dilemma like this: “I told my son to go to college and get a different job. I love him, I want him here, but my advice was not to come here because there is no future ... We're gonna try as hard as possible to make it work, though.”
That son, Salvatore Finocchiaro, is currently working on the farm to continue the family legacy, against his father’s wishes.
This is a community in tremendous economic pain: The open markets and opportunities afforded to Mexico in the NAFTA era steadily put farmers like Sal Finocchiaro out of business in this region of pristine farmland between Miami and the Florida Keys. The Trump Administration, at least so far, has not helped matters much here either; the recently-negotiated NAFTA replacement, known as USMCA, did not include provisions for these farmers.
Kern Carpenter, a tomato farmer in Homestead, put it in bleak terms: “We got left out of the NAFTA renegotiation ... they totally left southern Florida out. Fruits and vegetable growers were ignored, thrown under the bus.”
In my remaining days in Florida, I remembered those conversations even as the quieter voices of Florida’s farmers were drowned out by news of a frantic search for a would-be pipe bomber with vendettas against prominent Democratic leaders and Trump critics.
As fate would have it, the coming day and a half would render South Florida of all places as ground zero for the investigation and the pipe bomb story dominated our time on the ground. By Friday afternoon, Sam and I found ourselves — somehow, impossibly — standing in the very AutoZone parking lot in the sleepy community of Plantation, Fla. where suspect Cesar Sayoc has been arrested just hours before, interviewing the sole eyewitness to the dramatic takedown.
Stories like the would-be pipe bomber dominate the national psyche so intensely at such a moment in time that all other narratives just seem to blur. With the news cycle turning at such a frantic pace, I thought: What chance does the story of the farmers in Homestead have of breaking through? Meeting Sal Finocchiaro and his boy reminded me that their struggle also needs attention if we are going to help them and the next generation of Florida’s farmers to survive.