While I was perusing the Gardening section at the Central Library last week, my eyes tripped and did a double-take on a couple copies of Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook which I’ve wanted to read since the day it came out.
Armed with my library card, I checked it out and got right to reading. The book, if you haven’t heard of it, is about the tomato industry in Florida; specifically, those US-grown perfectly round, mealy, pink tomatoes you can buy in any grocery store in the winter. And virtually all the ones served to you in fast food and chain restaurants. If you’ve ever wondered why such awful tomatoes were deemed fit for sale, or where they came from, read Tomatoland.
Estabrook tells a short history of the tomato, talking about its origins in the arid and rocky mountains of South America. The natural next question for anyone who’s been to Florida is how you get something that evolved in that climate to grow in sandy, humid Florida. The answer: you declare chemical warfare on Mother Nature, pumping the sand full of each and every nutrient a tomato needs to grow, then dousing the plants in dozens of powerful chemicals to fend off just about every insect and fungus known to the state. We’re not talking about casually spraying weeds with RoundUp; these are seriously dangerous chemicals and lots of them.
Then he starts talking about the really outrageous parts of the industry. Migrant workers make up most of the field workers and are subject to all manner of abuses, including being sprayed with hazardous pesticides while they work, threats for trying to organize, wage fraud, and in shockingly many cases, full-fledged slavery. He talks about clusters of horrible birth defects in the children of some workers, occurring far too often to avoid suspicion. There are stories of workers effectively being paid just over one dollar an hour and being charged exorbitant rents on dwellings that should be condemned. If you want something to get mad about, check out this book, and buy tomatoes when they’re in season locally.
For all the injustice covered in Tomatoland, there’s a fair amount of hope too. The industry has gotten some unwanted attention in recent years for these very things and a number of grocery stores and restaurants have signed on to help ensure workers are compensated more fairly. There’s the Coalition of Imokalee Workers as the underdog fighting the behemoth tomato industry on behalf of field workers. There are also pioneers farming tomatoes more sustainably in the hostile environment of Florida, even some who consider their taste important.
If you haven’t heard much about the issues in Tomatoland, you’ll be surprised how thorny the existence of winter tomatoes really is. While we can focus on the world surrounding this one crop, you have to wonder what other mass-produced crops cause similar hardship behind the scenes in far off farmland. Count it as one more big reason to know where your food came from, who grew it and how it was grown.