Tomatoland, Part II

Oh, Tomatoland, where on earth do I start?

Around the time I started reading Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook, I came upon these end-of-season tomatoes at the farmers’ market. The young guy manning the stand smiled proudly at me and announced cheerfully that he’d picked them himself that morning, that it was his family’s farm. And of course, they’re organic.

Growing up, this is how I imagined it worked with all tomatoes: Farmer plants, sun shines, rain falls, farmer tends, plant grows, tomato ripens, farmer harvests, and then – if you’re lucky – the farmer is close to you and you get a yummy tomato. If the farmer is far away, the tomato is picked while not fully ripe, it’s trucked across the country, and you get a less-yummy tomato. I thought that was pretty much the whole story – if you choose to buy a winter tomato, you accept a certain amount of cardboard taste and environmental harm as part of the bargain. And that’s just how it goes with everything. It’s hard to live a perfect life; you make some trade-offs here and there.

Oh, boy. According to Barry Estabrook, it’s not quite that simple.

The major offenses in Tomatoland take place in Florida – a place where, according to Estabrook, the climate and the soil – humid and sandy – are completely unsuited for tomatoes. Estabrook describes a very un-farmlike process in which chemicals are sprayed, workers plant, more chemicals are sprayed, then workers harvest hard green tomatoes that can withstand all kinds of abuse – such as being trucked, sprayed, dunked, and gassed to some semblance of ripeness before making their way to the supermarket.

And according to the workers with whom Estabrook spoke, it’s not just the tomatoes getting doused with toxic chemicals – the workers themselves regularly found themselves in the path of the various sprays, some as often as several times a week. Even pregnant women. Pregnant women who were made to feel as though they had no other option. Estabrook describes, in detail, a lawsuit involving some pretty severe birth defects, and the question of whether a big tomato company knew that cancer- and birth-defect-causing chemicals being regularly sprayed on workers might possibly harm them … sigh …

The most horrifying part of the book – I’m telling you, this is not a foodie beach read – describes how unsuspecting workers found themselves enslaved by their crew bosses, beaten, chained, locked up at night, threatened with death if they attempted escape.

Slavery. In Florida. Seriously.

With so many degrees of separation between the person who picks the tomato and the person who buys the tomato, how easy is it for a large corporation to ignore what’s happening in the fields? Can you imagine finding out that a local farm stand kept slave labor? They’d be run out of town. But when we don’t know, we continue to purchase their products.

Tomatoland has messed with my head. How much do I not know?

Fortunately, there are decent options at the supermarket. Two tomato products that do not have this ethical curse, according to Estabrook, are canned tomatoes from California – just a whole different situation - and tomatoes from Lady Moon Farms, which from Estabrook’s description, sounds like a perfectly lovely large organic company that treats its workers well.

And, as it turns out, off-season tomatoes can be found at the farmers’ market:

One of my favorite things about a farmers’ market (or a CSA) is that you can get to know the people who grow the food you eat. You see them every week, build a relationship with them, learn about how they farm. Farmers who meet their customers face to face have some incentive to build a level of trust, to farm in a way they’d be comfortable discussing. And some of them are actually growing cold-weather tomatoes! In our area, two local growers of greenhouse tomatoes that I know of are Toigo Orchards and Mock’s Greenhouse (at the Bethesda and Dupont markets). Do you know of others?

Here’s even better news: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been pressuring restaurants and supermarkets to support their Fair Food campaign (which influences the growers to make changes), and since the publication of Tomatoland, conditions have improved. Surprisingly, they’re trying to convince Trader Joe’s to agree to their Fair Food principles right now – worth looking into if you shop there! You can vote with your dollars both by choosing to purchase ethically grown food and by supporting the Coalition’s efforts to improve workers’ conditions and end slavery.

So there’s hope. It’s ugly stuff, but as an informed consumer, you can be a part of the solution.

There’s so much more to Tomatoland – it really is a must-read. Have you read it? What did you think?

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6 comments to Tomatoland, Part II

  • A total must read – it totally blew my mind too on so many levels. Everyone should read it. Definitely don’t see tomatoes the same way.

    Now…read Poisoned.

  • Wow. Sometimes I really wish I could be content with ignorance! No more off-season tomatoes, unless I know exactly where they come from.

    I grew up in New Jersey, where the tomatoes were super-local (grown in my town), even the ones at the regular grocery store. They were perfect and delicious in the summer, such that the ones available for the rest of the year really paled in comparison. I also had the benefit of beautiful tomatoes that my grandmother grew in her backyard. I haven’t lived in New Jersey in a long time, and I also haven’t found tomatoes (local or otherwise) that taste as good. That said, I have high hopes for my new CSA next year: The farmer seems to be a fellow tomato lover!

  • Great post! Will definitely check out this book!

  • molly

    I’m putting it on my Christmas list, though sort of afraid to. I seriously dislike that “how much do I not know” feeling! :)

  • Liz

    Haven’t read it – but sounds like I should. Taste won us over a long time ago – every time I buy tomatoes from the grocery store I ended up asking myself why. In fact my husband tells stories about how he hated tomatoes (Safeway tomatoes, that is) when growing up…now, however, he loves to grow tomatoes, and heirloom varieties grace our table all summer long.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • So sad to hear the rest of the story. We buy a lot from Lady Moon Farms–the local Whole Foods stocks them, and I love, love, love their heirloom tomatoes. Thanks for sharing!

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