I once spent a season picking tomatoes in California’s Central Valley. News flash: picking tomatoes – picking anything on a commercial scale – for days on end in the hot valley sun is not much fun. It’s also not good for your health.
Kinda weird, that, isn’t it? You’d think that harvesting veggies all day long would be a healthy experience. Fresh air, blue skies, those lovely veggies, etc. etc. Well, yes it is when harvesting organics, but in the modern world of industrial agriculture, it’s unhealthy. Stunningly unhealthy. Consider: there are precious few sturdy regulations covering what kinds of insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides agribiz can put into and on the average commercial tomato. A few years ago, California’s fresh industrial tomato production businesses put a bit less than one million pounds of grim chemicals on their crops.
Over in Florida, the other major producer of commercial tomatoes, on about the same acreage, growers use nearly eight times as much. Which says a lot about how crappy a place Florida is for growing tomatoes (it’s humid & sandy – not good for tomatoes which prefer Utah-style summers). It says a lot about how lax Florida’s regulations are. And it says a lot about how anxious northerners are for tomatoes in the winter. What the market demands, the market will probably get, even if what it ends up getting is a tomato in name alone, something red, round, & utterly tasteless.
Barry Estabrook’s remarkable book, Tomatoland, explores these contradictions. How is it that the wonderful fruit we all know and love to grow and eat in the summer has become something so blandly ghastly in the winter? He looks at the tomato’s ancestors (in Peru and Chile, in a climate rather different from Florida’s) and marvels at the evolution of such a delicacy. Then he dives into the true subject of the book, which is subtitled How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruitfair labor. Estabrook carefully shows us how it came about that the scientific development of a tomato that looks so good and travels so well also meant that that same tomato tasted nothing like a tomato. It’s like a sturdy suitcase that travels well through snow and ice but when it’s opened there’s nothing in it. No taste. Nothing. Just pulp – and pulp relatively free of what’d we’d expect normal tomatoes to have in the area of nutrition.
It’s not just the taste that’s appalling. A United States attorney in Florida calls the tomato industry “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Perhaps you knew this already, but the field workers who pick the tomatoes everyone eats are often treated in a truly horrible way. Estabrook documents it. In the worst cases, workers are recruited in central America with grand promises, sign contracts in languages they can’t read, and then are kept imprisoned in truly grim conditions until they’ve paid off the cost of their transport and their food. Which, often as not, never happens. Even those who aren’t “obliged” in that way are subject to long days, constant exposure to toxic insecticides, and curiously biased systems of payment for their work.
Commercially grown tomatoes need these oodles of chemicals to thrive and those chemicals have a funny way of getting into the clothes and skin of the pickers. And thereby hangs another tale, the unsettling specifics of which Estabrook carefully delineates.
To me, a wonder of this book is that Estabrook has constructed it so well. He takes the reader from the delights of a good tomato (something we all know, even if it’s hard to define exactly) down through the depths of the horrendous things that happen in the course of growing an industrial tomato, horrendous to the humans involved in its propagation and harvest, devastating for the land that holds these tomatoes up, and to the quality of the tomato itself, that sad midwinter echo of what we love.
From those depths, Estabrook brings us out of the dark to the promise. He finds promise in the tireless work of labor organizers, fair housing advocates, the research for the perfect commercial tomato (one with taste, even), and the huge growth in organic tomato farming. Finally, he brings us back to the whole point of tomatoes – the way they taste when they’re good.
Organic. Fair labor. Could anything be more obvious?