I picked up Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland with a little bit of resistance. I’m a huge fan of food non-fiction, but I also had gotten to the point where I felt as though I’d exhausted the genre. What more was there to learn that would be so starkly different from all that the Michael Pollans and Marion Nestles of the world had already shared? I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the answer was, in fact, quite a lot.
Estabrook’s book focuses, as the title suggests, exclusively upon the tomato industry, particularly as it exists in the sandy and unfavorable soil of Florida. He throws out facts and anecdotes that are sure to scare the modern grocery consumer, from violations of regulations regarding pesticides to the way in which industry standards favor a certain tomato appearance, rather than a flavorful taste. But most horrifying of all are the conditions in which farm laborers struggle to live and making a living. Though other books (particularly Karl Weber’s Food, Inc.) have touched upon the plight of those workers who occupy the lowest of the low rungs on the industrial agricultural hierarchy, Estabrook takes a more incisive look at the issues that shape the lives of these laborers that is sure to make any reader think twice before picking up their next factory-farmed tomato.
The plight of the tomato farm laborer is one that doesn’t ease at the end of a long day of work. A vast majority of farms only pay their workers for the amount of tomatoes they pick in a day without regard to the lapses in time which occur while waiting for their daily assignment each morning or the hours they must wait at the end of a long day while the amount of work they have completed is tabulated. Under good conditions, a farm laborer does stand a chance of filling enough bushels to earn what would amount to minimum wage, however rain, those waits before and after the work day, illness, and a whole host of other factors come in to play and reduce earned income.
But beyond the injustice of the way in which pay is set up, the very conditions of the work are inhumane, so much so in fact that tomato labor is considered one of the prime sites of modern day slavery. Stooped to a crouch under the hot sun for 10 hours a day, picking tomatoes that are drenched in pesticides, often before the requisite waiting period is over, is just a daily occurrence for these people. Further troubles arise when they got home to crowded trailers operated by their bosses, who threaten them, their lives, and those of their family if they attempt to leave or dare to raise a complaint. It’s a dangerous cycle which far too many uneducated, non-English speaking laborers have found themselves trapped within.
Luckily there are a few recourses to action that are signs of hope for the Floridian tomato workforce. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a non-profit dedicated to fighting for the rights of Florida workers, particularly in Immokalee, one of the most destitute and corrupted communities where farmworkers live and work. After three Immokalee women gave birth to children with severe birth defects, some of them unable to live more than a mere three days because of the severity of these defects, the Coalition sought action. They hired a powerful lawyer who took the case on pro bono to prove that such defects were a cause of chemicals used on the fields and tomato farm supervisors failing to adhere to regulations that the fields be empty during spraying and remain so for a requisite period of time post-pesticide-application. The coalition has fought for countless other basic rights in the name of these farmworkers, primarily by joining forces to stand up to crew bosses that failed to fully pay their workers or that were hurling physical abuse upon their laborers and tenants. There is still plenty of work left to be done, but Estabrook does a wonderful job of highlighting why there is reason to be hopeful.
Tomatoland touches upon plenty of aspects of the tomato industry, from worker’s rights to corrupt industry executives, from dire health concerns and violations to the long sequence of events that made taste a non-factor in factory farmed tomatoes. Similar to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, Tomatoland won’t necessarily deter you from eating the food which is the prime subject of his book. Rather, he ensures that the next time you do eat a factory farmer tomato, you will do so with full consciousness of all that goes into harvesting that fruit in the hope that this will influence your opinion of the tomato and how you both acquire and enjoy it.