2,000 Migrant Workers Missing from Local Economy;
Tomato Fields Not Planted

A Madonia field on Old Town Neck, conspicuously NOT planted with tomatoes.

Cape Charles Wave

July 10, 2012

One family’s troubles echo through the entire community. At least, so it seems on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where East Coast Brokers and Packers have not planted tomatoes and more than 2,000 workers who normally would live here in the summer are not coming.

“They contribute to this economy,” said Jim Albright, regional coordinator for Justice and Peace for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, about the missing migrant farmworkers.

Tomato pickers buy food, gas and supplies locally, said Albright. They patronize laundromats, fast food restaurants and auto repair shops. Employees of at least 12 state, federal and county organizations spend part or all of their time working with migrants—which translates into local jobs. Farmworkers pay sales taxes — and all state and federal taxes are withheld from their pay checks, including social security payments.

“They’re not being paid under the table,” said Albright.

The local trouble started in Florida, focused on the family of Batista J. Madonia Sr. Madonia Sr.—a sometime Cape Charles resident–and his family own several companies, including East Coast Brokers and Packers, Stellaro Bay, Inc., and the Circle M Ranch in Lakeland, Florida.

According to the Tampa Tribune, the Madonias are known in Florida for their generosity. In his book, Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook says East Coast Brokers and Packers quit the powerful Florida Tomato Growers Exchange in the fall of 2009, and partnered with a group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

In September of 2009, the Modonias convinced their client, Compass Group North America, to pay 1.5 cents per pound extra for their tomatoes, with 1 cent per pound passed directly to the field workers.

”Although it was probably not the most popular decision, it was a decision we chose to make for our workers and for our partners in business,” Madonia Jr. said in The Packer, a fresh produce industry newsletter. “If there’s a way I can give them (the workers) a better standard of living, they can have a better life and if this doesn’t adversely affect my business at all, there’s no way I could not let this happen.”

But soon after, Madonia started borrowing big money. In June 2010, Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. loaned him $15 million, secured by land in Florida. A year later, Madonia borrowed another $23.5 million with a $2.5 million line of credit, bringing the aggregate principal debt to $41 million.

That debt was secured by land in Florida and Virginia. Madonia’s company, Stellaro Bay, Inc., owns hundreds of acres on Wilsonia and Old Town Necks in Northampton County, and hundreds more in Accomack County.

Those acres—once lined with rows of black plastic mulch and stakes—are not planted with tomatoes this year.

Northampton County court records show that on March 15, 2012, Madonia’s Circle M Ranch lost a lawsuit brought against it by Crop Production Services, Inc. The Hillsborough County Circuit Court in Florida awarded Crop Production services $3.4 million, which included $2.6 million as the principal and 10 percent on past due invoices.

A separate judgment against East Coast Packers and Brokers awarded $4.1 million to Crop Production Services. And another suit in Illinois awarded Anthony Marano Co. $5.7 million, to be recovered from East Coast Brokers & Packers, Inc.

“This is the third summer that East Coast Brokers has to pay cash to get chemicals, seeds and carpentry,” said Albright.

Worse, the Madonia’s daughter Laurie died of cancer in April. Reports say her parents have retreated into seclusion since her death.

The story, pieced together from court records, ends with giant holes. What happened? Why? What will happen to all that Eastern Shore land? Only the Madonias know the answers to these questions, and to date they have not responded to a request for an interview.



2 Responses to “2,000 Migrant Workers Missing from Local Economy;
Tomato Fields Not Planted”

  1. Kearn Schemm on July 10th, 2012 8:26 am

    Assuming the migrant workers are legal, they might bring marginal monetary benefits to Cape Charles. But who pays for the costs of their children attending school? Who pays for their medical care (we do, they go to the ER, and walk out without paying) The cost of these and other costs for the 15-20 million illegal migrants in the US is breaking us, the taxpayers. Unemployed and underemployed Americans should be given decent wages to do the work now done by migrants. American workers too would buy gas, visit local shops and perhaps even pay taxes, rather than remit their earnings to their home countries.

  2. Mary Beth Cunningham on July 12th, 2012 8:27 pm

    @KS: How many “legal” workers do you know that would work for the same wages and under the same conditions as migrant workers? Open up your heart for the good of all people, including the children.