State

Crew boss accused of abuse get owner's OK

Some of North Florida's farmworkers end up here, sorting and packing potatoes at Bulls-Hit Ranch & Farm, where owner Thomas R. Lee and his son, Tater, produce gourmet chips.

Lee is a potato farmer who played left tackle for the Hastings High Sod Busters - a home-grown entrepreneur who once toiled in the fields to help feed his seven siblings and seamstress mother, a profile on his website says. Now, he makes handmade Bulls Chips.

And he hired crew boss Ronald Jones to help him. It's Jones' job to provide farm laborers. At least five of those laborers say Jones lured them with false promises, housed them in shabby complexes, and forced them to pay 100 percent interest on money he loaned them for food and supplies.

But in a telephone interview with The Herald, Lee had only praise for crew chief Jones. ``He's done the best job I ever seen done,'' he said. So good, in fact, that he paid Jones a little extra this season.

Lee wasn't so kind about some of the workforce he sees.

``They are not much more than a damn animal, to be honest with you,'' Lee said. ``The good people that you do hire, you are going to treat them right, and do them right. A lot of these type of people, if you give them $25, they are going to drink it up and dope it up.''

Twice, Lee added: ``They're not worth killing anyhow.''

Told about the workers' allegations of abuse by Jones, he said: ``I don't believe that they are being abused and being mistreated, unless they asked for it.''

Farmworker advocates say that's exactly the kind of view that allows labor contractors to exploit workers. The workers themselves say farmers don't seem to care.

``I think he just turned a blind eye because he needed these things done,'' former Jones worker Isiah Brown said of the farmer.

``And when you close your eyes to something, you close your mind to it, too.''

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