Too high a price

Tomatoland book coverWe love tomatoes.

In 2009, an average of 20 pounds of fresh supermarket tomatoes was consumed by every man, woman, and child in the US. The plants are grown by the thousands (millions?) in backyards by gardeners who crave the complex sweet/tart/slightly salty taste that lingers in your mind like memories of a first kiss. It’s a flavor that even talented gardeners must forgo for many months of the year, and on those dreary March days when I push the cart along rows of gleaming red ping-pong balls, I have sometimes been seduced into buying those watery, lifeless fruits that never satisfy but give just enough of an imitation of tomato-ness to make one long for summer.

Until I read Tomatoland.

The simple question “why do supermarket tomatoes taste the way they do?” led author Barry Estabrook to Florida to interview botanists, horticulturalists and tomato packers. He drove through fields with farm owners and met with crew bosses and worker advocates. He learned about Alexander W. Livingston,  who in 1870 developed the Paragon “the first perfectly and uniformly smooth tomato ever introduced to the American public,” and saw unripe “mature greens” harvested, washed, gassed with ethylene (for ripening) and packed for shipping to New York.

In clear, journalistic prose he tells the reader the unsettling truth he discovered: those cheery little red packages come to us Northerners covered with suffering and exploitation.

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Juan Dominguez had earned a total  of $13.76 on the day that Estabrook went to his trailer.

“Dominguez swept his hand in  a gesture of invitation into a bedroom. It housed five twin-bed mattresses. Three were flat on the floor with no space between them. Two rested on four-by-eight-feet plywood sheets suspended from the ceiling by chains…The bathroom was at the end of a short hallway. Barely bigger than an airplane lavatory with a curtainless metal shower stall, it served ten men who came home each day hot, dirty and anxious to bathe…”

This, we learn, is not the worst that pickers endure. Over a thousand men and women have been freed from forced labor – slavery – in the Florida tomato fields in the past fifteen years. Asked whether one can assume that a fresh tomato in winter was picked by the hand of a slave, US attorney Douglas Molloy replied, “That is not an assumption. That is a fact.”

And more: in the winter of 2004-2005, three migrant workers in the city of Immokalee gave birth to badly deformed babies. Florida’s nutrient-poor soils and humid climate make commercial tomato farming dependent on regular drenchings of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, more than eight times the amounts used on California tomatoes. Workers are routinely soaked with sprays known to be harmful to humans and animals. Florida’s lax reporting guidelines, coupled with the reluctance of workers to come forward, means that very few cases of pesticide poisoning are investigated.

In this case, the  parents of one of the Immokalee babies sued their employer, AG-Mart, and won an out of court settlement in 2008. The agreement may stand as a signpost for reforms that are slowly making their way into the Florida tomato industry.  In recent years the nonprofit Coalition of Immokalee Workers successfully negotiated with fast food conglomerates to pay workers one cent more per pound of tomatoes picked. Advocates have come forward to build better housing, help migrant families and pursue justice in the courts.

The long path from field-to-mouth of modern food systems allows consumers to remain ignorant of how food gets to our plates. Tomatoland brings the reader into the fields to see the true costs of winter tomatoes.

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