The recruiters come rolling through in roomy vans, searching for a fresh crop of farmworkers from the homeless shelters, haggard parks and soup kitchens dotting North Florida's urban hubs.
They target the addicted, the vulnerable, the desperate with promises of good pay, cash upfront, cold beer. Some talk of crack cocaine and ready sex.
Step inside that van, say those who have, and journey straight to hell.
Florida is America's second-richest agricultural state. But for the farmhands who labor along the lowest rung of the food chain, the riches are a mirage.
Their world is filled with sweatshop hours, slum housing, poverty pay and criminal abuse. At its extreme, it includes modern-day slavery in a state where oranges adorn license plates and tourists pull in for a free cup of juice when they cross the border.
The brutality in North Florida has an unusual, bitter twist, a Herald examination has found. While most farmworkers in Florida and nationwide are undocumented Mexicans who have trekked through the desert in search of fortune, the laborers who toil unnoticed in hamlets like East Palatka and Hastings are mostly poor black Americans.
They are recruited by crew-chief contractors who serve as middlemen between the farmers who grow crops and the laborers who pick, package and sort them. These bosses can control nearly every aspect of the workers' lives: their housing, their food, their transportation and even their paycheck.
In interviews with The Herald, farmworkers told harrowing stories of life in a hot stretch of North Florida farm country that welcomes passersby with signs saying ``Jesus is Lord, Welcome to Hastings'' and ``Florida's Potato Capital.''
Many were recruited from gathering spots for the homeless - soup kitchens, parks and shelters in Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa. They say they were lured with vows of good pay, sprinkled with promises of partying and $15 in cash when they reached the farm.
What they didn't know: They would live in slum housing, work long hours for scant pay, and, in several cases, have to pay back $1 of interest for most every $1 loaned to them to buy food - including the $15 that first lured them into the van.
Poor, isolated, without transportation, these men said they became slaves to the boss and their debts. One said he was beaten about the face this year when he couldn't repay his ``debt.'' Two nights later, he slipped away at midnight and walked for hours to escape.
CASES INVESTIGATED Focus is on recruitment by farm labor contractors
Federal prosecutors are now examining cases in which North Florida farm labor contractors recruited from homeless shelters - only to exploit the laborers who stepped into those vans. Investigators confirmed the inquiry, but would not elaborate.
``We've been contacted about this situation,'' Douglas Molloy, managing assistant U.S. attorney in Fort Myers, said last week.
One former worker, Angelo Jennings, said a Hastings crew boss lured him from a scraggly lot across from the Clara White Mission in Jacksonville, a lot where birds snip at dirty bread and shopping carts and beer cans cover the grounds.
``This is when he catches you at your lowest point,'' said Jennings, a recovering drug addict working to reform his ways. ``If you have any good sense, he doesn't want you. He wants you where he can use you.
``If you're tired and hungry, they'll go out and buy some food and a six-pack, and put it on ice.''