Tomatoland. As a gardener, the name conjures an idyllic image of giant, bursting, fragile fruit growing dizzily in a world of joy and dancing salads. In the past month alone, I have hauled in from my own garden 82 pounds of succulent tomatoes in all shapes and sizes that vary in taste and color—my own tomato wonderland.
Yet, my garden is the exception to the rule, and Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit isn’t the story of a joyful tomato patch cared for tenderly by nurturing hands. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Tomatoland makes my garden seem like a fairytale, while this book is a haunting ghost story by comparison.
Tomatoland is the true story of one specific brand of tomato (“Florida Rounds,” the rock-hard variety you find in the middle of winter in the supermarket), and modern industrial agriculture’s demonic role in its flavorless existence. As if destroying tomatoes’ flavor isn’t crime enough (James Beard describes these tomatoes as “a total gastronomic loss”), author Barry Estabrook details the many inhumane and illegal acts that go into every awful bite of this grocery store variety tomato.
This is no bedtime story. Yet, it’s our story—each and every one of us who has ever eaten a wintertime tomato. It’s an eye opening and critical report on the crimes of Florida’s giant tomato business. The book covers crimes against the environment, against human health, against fair wages, against humane labor standards, and of course, against flavor.
In a state without true dirt soil, Florida’s goliath commercial tomato farmers use a chemical soup to turn sand into temporarily plant-able “soil.” Then, as the plants begin to grow, they are sprayed again and again with more chemical concoctions to keep bugs at bay.
It’s a hideous tale. Yet, it keeps getting worse. Those sprays aren’t just killing bugs. They’re being sprayed illegally on farm workers and causing infant mortality, physical deformation, and a number of long-term health problems. Estabrook tells us that “America’s agricultural workers are more likely to be poisoned by pesticides on the job than those in any other occupation.”
Think it can’t get worse? It does!
Those same farm workers are being held as modern-day slaves, and Estabrook sites case after documented case of their torture and mistreatment. In a conversation with Douglas Molloy, a Florida chief assistant U.S. attorney, Estabrook writes, “I asked Molloy if it was safe to assume that a consumer who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store, fast food restaurant, or food-service company in winter has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave, he corrected my choice of words. ‘It’s not an assumption. It is a fact.’”
Slavery aside, the wages of tomato farm workers alone are indecent. Estabrook notes that “a person picking tomatoes receives the same basic rate of pay he received thirty years ago. Adjusted for inflation, a harvester’s wages have actually dropped by half over the same time period.”
At times, you will want to have a rotten tomato on hand to throw at the wall in outrage. How can all these atrocities really be taking place in America?
Thankfully, Estabrook offers hope amid the darkness. He follows small-scale organic farmers and humanitarian nonprofits that are fighting back against this agricultural beast. He details their winning battles. You’ll meet the Coalition of Immokalee Workers who use grassroots tactics and legal action to invoke change. You’ll meet organic farmers like Tim Stark, author of Heirloom, who are offering alternatives to once-limited market choices. And you’ll learn about the origins of this much-altered fruit, traveling with Estabrook to Peru to savor the original taste of this nutrient-rich food where it can still be found in the wild.
Read this book. Making informed food choices at the market starts with educating ourselves about the issues. Estabrook dedicates Tomatoland to “the men and women who pick the food we eat.” Perhaps we can all dedicate our next supermarket purchase to them as well by voting with our food dollars to buy only fruits and vegetables that have been grown in a way that respects human life and our planet.
Listen to an interview of Barry Estabrook with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.