ACCOMAC, VA. -- Francisco Serrano, 10, reached through the tangled vine, plucked a heavy green tomato and dropped it into the red plastic bucket at his feet.
When the bucket, which holds up to 30 pounds of tomatoes, was about half full, he dumped its contents into one being used by his mother Alfreda, and together they lugged it to a nearby truck. They boosted it up to a "dumper," who in a single motion emptied it and deposited a red plastic token into the empty bucket, returning it to Francisco.
After working five hours in 95-degree heat, Francisco and his mother would redeem their tokens for 40 cents each -- $40 if they filled 100 buckets, a good day's work for a fast, experienced picker. In addition, Francisco's father is paid $5 an hour as a field hand, gathering tomatoes that the pickers drop.
The Serranos are part of a migratory army of 4,000 seasonal agricultural workers -- mostly Mexican Americans and Haitians, plus a sprinkling of other Hispanics and southern blacks -- who pick tomatoes, cucumbers, snap beans and cabbage each summer from the rich soil in the two-county peninsula that is Virginia's Eastern Shore.
Francisco and his parents were working in a field near here when it was visited Thursday by about 30 state officials from agencies that deal with housing, education, sanitation, employment, physical and mental health, rehabilitation, social services, agriculture and alcohol and substance abuse.
The two-day tour was organized by Eva S. Teig, Virginia's secretary of human resources, who heads an interagency migrant worker policy committee established last fall by Gov. Gerald L. Baliles.
Teig said her task force may recommend that the General Assembly appropriate $1 million to $2 million for low-interest loans so local farmers can build or rehabilitate housing, and $300,000 to $400,000 to restore educational programs lost because of a cutback in federal funds.
"We want to help the farmer as well as the migrants," she said at the end of the tour. "There is a symbiotic relationship between them. We don't want to come down so hard on the farmers to hurt them, but we don't want to let conditions for the migrants go backwards either."
James F. Kelly, director of housing management for the Virginia Housing Development Authority, who was on the tour, showed several growers pictures of used, motel-like portable units that can be purchased for $10,000. Each unit could house 12 workers, two to a room, in carpeted, air-conditioned rooms with private baths.
That would be quite a contrast to the 1940s-vintage Mappsville migrant camp visited by the officials, where 70 workers and their families, mostly Haitians, are living this summer.
One of the one-room, frame sheds is occupied by Claretha Thomas, 29; her son, Roshauld Campbell, 2, and Thomas' boyfriend, Booker T. Campbell, 33, who arrived here from Florida three weeks ago.
Thomas, who has lived in migrant camps for seven years, rated the facilities at Mappsville "fair," pointing to a central kitchen, separate showers for men and women, and open fields for cooking on a grill.
Although Campbell had not yet been paid, Thomas had received $74 worth of food stamps the day before and said that "hopefully he'll get paid tomorrow, if nothing goes wrong."
Campbell said he wasn't worried, because his brother Raymond is "the contractor" who filled two gray-and-blue school buses with migrants for the trip here and, in the fall, for the apple harvest in Hancock, Md.
Just up Rte. 13, also in Mappsville, Taylor-Fulton Inc., one of the nation's 10 largest tomato producers, has built six new buildings, at $50,000 each, for its "agricultural workers -- we don't like to call them migrants," said owner Jay Taylor.
Taylor admitted that some of his workers still live in substandard houses -- the tour stopped at one Taylor-Fulton house that did not even have a permit to operate -- but he said his corporation's goal is to do away with traditional migrant camps and house all of its workers in village settings.
"Who wants to walk outside to the john or kitchen?" he asked, conducting a tour of the Mappsville village.
In Northampton County, at an emergency shelter operated by the American Friends Service Committee, director Joanne Seigle told Teig that one crew chief dumped 14 migrants off at the side of the road after he was unable to find work or shelter for them.
"It's like overbooking by airlines," Teig said. "They bring more people north than are needed because they want to make sure all the spots are filled."
Teig was told that other problems grow out of a resentment of federally mandated standards for migrants that do not apply to seasonally employed full-time residents, who often have needs as great as those of the migrants.
Kelly said, for example, that housing aid would "have to be sold as a program for farmers, not for migrants, because migrants are not so popular on the Eastern Shore."
Yet, despite mechanization that has gradually reduced the number of migrants needed on the shore from 10,000 to about 4,000, P.C. Kellam, who with his brother farms 500 acres near Exmore, told the tour group: "We need migrants. We can't survive without them." Kellam said most local residents will not do field work, and the few who will won't work as hard as migrant laborers.
Kellam credited Legal Aid lawyers with "forcing us to change" and provide better facilities for the migrants. "Our labor camps still aren't Holiday Inns or Hiltons, but we're trying to fix them up," he said.
Just three years ago, migrant conditions in Virginia were "abominable, probably among the worst in the country," said Gregory S. Schell, managing attorney of the migrant farmworker division of the Legal Aid Bureau in Salisbury, Md.
Schell, who participated in a forum that was part of the tour, said the state has "moved a good distance, housing is a lot better." Another improvement, he said, is that Virginia growers now pay migrants directly, by check, which lessens the possibility that the workers will be cheated. In the recent past, he said, the farmers gave cash to the crew chiefs to distribute to the migrants -- a practice still common in Maryland and Delaware -- and "half the money never went beyond the crew leader."
Many migrant children are now enrolled in day care centers (there was a waiting list of 60 at one visited by the officials). By all accounts, a child as young as Francisco Serrano working in the fields, a once-common practice, is now the exception and, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, probably illegal.
But Francisco told a reporter that he is proud to be bringing in money for his four younger siblings, and said he was "going to do this" when he grows up, too. "I like it," he said.