Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame inducts FFVA’s George Sorn

FFVA's George Sorn was named to the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2002.

Feb. 2002 – FFVA’s latest addition to the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame is former Executive Vice President and General Manager George Sorn. He, along with Bernard Aloysius Egan, J.R. “Rip” Graves and Carl B. Loop, Jr., will be inducted into the Hall of Fame February 12 at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa.

Sorn is widely considered to be one of the foremost authorities on farm labor. Those roots go back to before he was born. The phrase “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” applies here. Sorn’s father was an apprentice blacksmith in Germany with a wife and young daughter when he decided to move to the United States in 1922. While seeking new opportunities, he became acquainted with Seabrook Farms, a large vegetable operation in New Jersey. Herr Sorn was soon employed as a celery cutter at Seabrook, later rising through the ranks to supervise Seabrook’s 2,000-acre apple and pear orchard division. “My father was a tremendous individual,” Sorn says. “He was good with ‘problem children’ – the difficult workers. Maybe I ended up in the labor area because of that.”

George Sorn was born October 11, 1927, in Bridgeton, N.J. He began his agricultural resume at the age of nine, picking lima beans and topping onions and beets at Seabrook Farms. He worked for a short while as a water boy, but was pulled out of service when child labor laws were passed prohibiting young children in the workforce. The laws allowed 12-year-olds to work under certain conditions, so when he hit 12, he returned. Throughout his high school summer vacations, Sorn worked in the orchard division at Seabrook. War-time provisions allowed him to take 30 days off school both as a junior and senior to supervise the operation’s apple packinghouse. One million bushels of apples went through Seabrook in each of those two years, and the orchard division won second place in a state apple-picking contest.

After graduating from high school in 1945, Sorn began college at Rutgers University. Soon Uncle Sam sent him an invitation he couldn’t refuse. He served for 18 months in the U.S. Army Air Force and the Army. Picking up his studies after the war, he earned his bachelor of science degree in horticulture in 1950 and returned to Seabrook for two years, becoming assistant division manager of one of their larger vegetable divisions.

Destiny, in the guise of a working vacation, brought him south. FFVA traded workers with Seabrook’s operations in those days, and the manager in charge of Seabrook’s labor-sharing program knew Charlie Grover, head of FFVA’s Labor Division. FFVA was looking for someone to work in the busy winter season and the manager knew Sorn wanted to get away for a few months, “so FFVA hooked up with me and I came to Florida. I landed in Orlando on Dec. 31, 1952. Sorn took on the job of temporary field representative and all-around trouble-shooter.

Mr. Sorn came to work at FFVA in the 1950s.

He remembers how growers dealt with the issue of workers’ housing back then. “During the ’40s and ’50s, the workers stayed in labor camps. FFVA was instrumental in setting up a lot of them throughout the state. The camps were turned over to local authorities who set up workers’ compensation programs. Regular insurance companies wouldn’t touch them because they had no actuarial experience in that area and they didn’t know what it would cost. That’s when FFVA formed the self-insurance fund.”

Events worked in his favor when FFVA changed labor division managers. The new manager, Bill Anderson, made Sorn’s temporary position a permanent one. He became the assistant manager of the Labor Division in 1954. At that time, FFVA handled more than 7,000 workers from the West Indies. Since Sorn had worked alongside West Indian laborers from an early age, he understood their concerns as well as those of the growers, thus proving himself as an effective mediator. “FFVA had a dual role. We represented the growers’ interests – the workers had their own reps – but we also didn’t want one grower to jeopardize the program for the others. It was in everyone’s best interest to be fair when it came to disputes about living conditions, price, food, and other issues.”

Sorn took on extra duties, assigning workers to specific growers, arranging transportation, coordinating activities, obtaining certifications and handling mountains of paperwork. He became a field coordinator, supervising six field reps.

Anderson retired in 1967 and Sorn was named FFVA’s new Labor Division manager, beginning a stage in his career when he earned an enormous amount of respect throughout Florida and the United States as an authority on farm labor. He represented growers’ interests in Tallahassee and Washington. The late ’60s were a challenging time. Laws changed. Gone were most of the West Indian workers. Union activity increased. “There was one group that was involved with a church that was pro-union and very acrimonious,” Sorn remembers. “I went to all their meetings whether I was invited or not. I remember one of  their people told me he’d just as soon spit on me as look at me.”

The face of labor changed in the 1960s. In order to comply with U.S. Department of Labor regulations, Sorn embarked on seemingly endless trips from the Rio Grande Valley to Virginia in search of willing hands. One year, FFVA recruited 13,000 workers, put them on buses and sent them to Florida. Results weren’t spectacular. Sorn says the Department of Labor handed men over to agricultural employers just to get them off the unemployment rolls. Many of these workers arrived in Florida only to turn around, hop back on the bus and head for greener pastures.

At this time, Mexican workers were becoming more of an asset to Florida farmers. They were reliable and willing to work. Of course, the obvious problem was that they weren’t all legal. The workers were installed in hotels, restaurants and many other businesses as well as in agriculture, but growers took much of the blame at the time for allowing illegal migrant workers into the country.

During the 1960s, Sorn became involved with what was to be a lifelong devotion – the Redlands Christian Migrant Association. Originally the idea of two Mennonite sisters, the program attempted to provide a safe haven for children of migrant workers, removing them from the dangers of the field. Wendall Rollason had taken over RCMA when he and Sorn met. “He was a firebrand,” Sorn said. “Before I met him, he was in the papers, critical of the treatment of workers’ children. After we talked, we hit it off  because we realized we actually had a common goal. We both wanted to get the children out of the fields.” Sorn admits the reasons were “selfish” on the growers’ part; when the children were cared for in a safe facility, the parents were free to work without worry. By providing day care and other services for the migrants’ children, growers were able to attract better workers.

Mr. Sorn helps choose designs for the RCMA Christmas cards fundraising project.

Sorn has been president of RCMA for the past 12 years. “The best thing about being involved with RCMA is giving the parents an alternative to bringing the children out into the field. They’re taken care of in a safe facility. We try to expand their opportunities through not only day care, but also healthcare, the outreach program, and two charter schools with the goal of giving them the opportunities our own children have,” said Sorn.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sorn served as vice president and later president of the U.S. Employers of West Indian Workers. A highlight of those years was representing all U.S. agricultural employers at the International Labour Organization’s World Employment Conference in 1976. “That was a tremendous experience,” he said. The conference focused on multinational enterprises and concluded by recommending that a convention on multinational enterprises be adopted.

Sorn took on the executive vice president and general manager post at FFVA in May 1984. During his tenure, he served on the U.S. Agriculture Technical Advisory Committee and traveled to Mexico, Canada and other countries to protect our growers in international competition and trade. He also took on big-league labor responsibilities when President Reagan appointed him to the Commission on Agricultural Workers. “The purpose of the commission was to explore the impact of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986,” he said. “I traveled all over the county to find out how the reforms affected not only ag workers but also ag employers.” The commission reported its findings to Congress in 1992.

Sorn also oversaw the creation of FFVA’s Environmental & Pest Management Division, bringing Dan Botts, one of the outstanding pest and environmental experts in the country, on board. “Back when I started, I didn’t know what ecology was,” Sorn said. “I’m really proud of our growers for setting up the division. Now, that expertise is one of the key benefits of belonging to FFVA.”

Other national committees and organizations lucky enough to benefit from Sorn’s expertise and negotiating skills included the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association’s Government Relations Committee and its U.S./Mexico Task Force, and the Executive Committees of the National Environmental Development Association. At the state level, he served on the board of the Florida Agricultural Tax Council and the Agribusiness Institute of Florida. In addition, he was appointed by the governor to serve on the Florida Advisory Council on Farmworker Affairs.

He’s no stranger to awards, either. Induction into the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame seems natural to someone who received numerous awards and honors including the FFVA Distinguished Service Award; a Resolution of Appreciation by the Florida Cabinet for “Exemplary Public Service in the Field of Agriculture;” an Award of Merit for Distinguished Service to the Food and Agricultural Industry of Florida from the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida; an Award of Appreciation from RCMA; and a Certificate of Appreciation from the Florida Governor’s Advisory Council on Farmworker Affairs.

“George Sorn took FFVA into the ’80s and ’90s,” said current FFVA President Mike Stuart. “He really helped it become a viable and strong organization. Not only is he one of the most respected people in our industry, he’s a real friend. If he says something to you, you can bank on it.”

Since retiring from FFVA in 1992, Sorn has remained at his post at RCMA and continues to be actively involved in his community. He is an Honorary Life Member of the Optimist Club of Orlando, and expresses his life-long love of baseball as a little league umpire. “I played intramural ball back in high school and college and was actually scouted by the Brooklyn Dodgers. At that time, I didn’t think it was the way to go. I wanted to get into agriculture – I just didn’t know which part.”

Sorn’s wife, Joyce, was born and raised in Orlando and worked in the downtown library for 22 years. He and Joyce have one daughter, Valerie.

Sorn has been developing another talent these days: woodworking. He’s built a series of doll houses for Joyce, the current project being a cottage-style house with an English thatched roof.

When asked to summarize the changes he’s seen throughout his career, Sorn said, “Every decade or so the issues change in agriculture. And then they come around again. Over the years, you get the same problems. Only the people change.”

Fortunately for Florida growers, one of those people has been George Sorn. FFVA is proud to have been associated with him and congratulate him on his induction into the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame.

We’ll bet his father would have been proud too.

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