4 On Your Side investigation reveals poor working conditions on pumpkin fields

Posted at: 11/11/2013 10:33 PM
By: Chris Ramirez, KOB Eyewitness News 4

No food is more symbolic to autumn than a pumpkin.  This time of year, pumpkins are used to represent a fall harvest, a hearty Thanksgiving, and fun at Halloween.

But our 4 On Your Side investigation goes beyond the pumpkins on the shelf and traces them back to fields where they grew.  We’ve uncovered a dark side to the industry that no one wanted you to find out about--a side that has caused a death, widespread illness, and unsanitary conditions.   

Our investigation took us to massive farmland on the Navajo Nation slightly south of Farmington. The farmland expands more than 2,000 acres and some of it is leased out to private companies.  A private company called Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers leases out fields to grow pumpkins and each fall the company recruits about 500 workers from around the state, mostly from tribal lands.  The workers live together in dormitories on the farm.

"People are working seven days a week, 8-10 hours day,” said Tess Wilkes, an attorney with the NM Center on Law and Poverty.  “It’s sweat shop conditions basically.  (Farm workers) tend to be a group that is exploited because they are vulnerable."

4 On Your Side obtained reports from Indian Health Services after inspectors performed two on-site inspections at the farm.  They noted and photographed major problems at this camp.  The reports note dirt, debris, algae and slime inside the workers’ main water sources.  Birds had gotten into the shower areas of the dorms and dropped feces on the pipes.  There was evidence of a rodent infestation and the workers have no place to wash their clothing.  

Sanitation is questionable, but there are bigger concerns.  The reports also notes nearly 70 pumpkin pickers showed up to hospitals with respiratory illnesses.  Inspectors from the Navajo Nation looked at clues about the outbreak.  The report states a pesticide was sprayed on the fields six weeks before workers got sick.  On the day they inspected, they found and photographed widespread mildew on the pumpkin plants.

"They are living and working at the camp on site that makes workers even more vulnerable because they aren't going home to a bed where they can get their bearings and then come back the next day," Wilkes said.  

There are concerns about basic safety on the pumpkin farm.  Fabian Pinto died this year his third day on the job after a water truck ran over him and crushed him.  

"He was a good brother to me and I miss him,” Pinto sister Kimberly Pinto told KOB.  “To this day I look at my phone waiting for him to call me, but he's never going to call me."  

The Pintos are tribal members of the Zuni Pueblo in western New Mexico.  Kimberly has been trying to get more information about her brother’s death, but she said her calls have gone unanswered by Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers.

"I think there is more to the story,” Kimberly Pinto told KOB while being interviewed on the Zuni Pueblo.  “How could a person just run over a person without looking?"

“We have heard reports that they are using children of the workers to drive the trucks, so there's probably not a lot of enforcement on who's using the trucks,” Wilkes said.  

Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers is a company based in Greensboro, NC.  According to their website, they grow pumpkins in New Mexico and then sell them to non-profit organizations and churches for fundraising purposes.  The very groups who would be against exploitation of migrant workers may be fueling it without knowing it.  The company’s owner is Richard Hamby and we learned he does not like returning phone calls…not to the Pinto Family and not to KOB-TV.  Investigative reporter Chris Ramirez called multiple times on different days without one single call back.  Nobody from Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers wished to defend their company or explain why New Mexicans are getting sick and dying on their farms.  

Zuni Pueblo’s governor also wants answers.  As a tribal leader, he doesn’t want private employers recruiting his members to work in condition where they may face death or illness.    

“We need to hold those individuals accountable," said Zuni Governor Arlen Quetawki.

Gov. Quetawki said he plans on taking this issue with Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers to the rest of the Pueblo Community.  

"The question from the tribe itself would be whether they've corrected those deficiencies so that kinds of things won't happen to any tribe."

There is always a story behind what you put on your dinner table.  New Mexico will be watching to see how this story ends.