Tomatoland

Tomatoland

Barry Estabrook

Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2011

xvii + 220 pp.   $19.99 (Hardcover)

 

As a reviewer with a fondness for Mediterranean gastronomy, a book with the name Tomatoland immediately attracts my attention with its bright red glossy ‘Florida Red’ tomato cover.  A staple food in Tunisian cuisine, the ubiquitous fruit finds its way into a great many of the contemporary Tunisian dishes that I prepare in my own home kitchen.  In the north of Vermont, where my immediate family resides, we take for granted the year-round availability of perfectly spherical tomatoes.  Although it seems absurd in many ways, tomatoes imported from over 1,500 miles away are less expensive and often more robust than locally grown tomatoes.  As Esabrook delves into the world of the tomato industry, he discovers realities concerning the process by which tomatoes are grown which could turn the stomachs of even the most avid tomato buffs, especially when the risks and consequences faced by field laborers are taken into consideration.

Tomatoes plants require a certain temperature and climate in order to flourish, which is what makes it a seasonal fruit in places struck by cold winters, such as the aforementioned example of Vermont.  Florida winters, however, are quite pleasant, boasting 80 degree averages and making it a hot spot for retirees, including my own grandparents, who flock there to escape the cold climates of their own hometowns.  Tomato farms profit from these warm winters which extend the growing season by providing enough sun for tomato plants to thrive.   Unfortunately, the desirable weather patterns that Florida enjoys are often interrupted by hurricanes and unpredictable temperatures that can wreak havoc on delicate varieties of tomato and prove catastrophic for small-scale growers.  Furthermore, the soil profile of Florida and the Immokalee region in particular—where most farms are located—is  a sandy, easily draining, neutral mix, akin to what one would encounter in a hydroponic setup.

Barry Estabrook explains that as a result of these factors, the production of tomatoes in Florida is a system with a high input and an unpredictable output.  In order to avoid large-scale loss, companies inject the tomatoes with chemical cocktails to maintain a functional growing medium.   In addition to being fed large amounts of artificial nutrients, the tomatoes undergo a barrage of pesticides to shield them against attacks by pests and insects from nearby swamps.  Government agencies monitor worksites poorly and farmers are characterized by greed, irresponsibility and a lack of restraint.  Because of this carelessness, pickers and field maintenance workers are exposed to the chemicals, putting not only their health, but also the health of their potential offspring, at risk.  They are often sent into freshly sprayed fields; the chemicals soak their clothing and are absorbed into their skin.  In the most extreme cases, these poisonous chemicals are sprayed during work hours and land directly on the pickers working in the fields.  This exposure has serious side effects, including birth defects and long-term illness.

The unsustainable position of migrant workers within the production of tomatoes is not neglected by Estabrook as he examines the participation of fruit pickers in the process that creates profitable harvests for large produce distributors.  As he notes in the book’s introduction, “Florida’s tomato fields provide a stark example of what a food system looks like when all elements of sustainability are violated” (xii).  Violation of the state mandated rate of $7.25 an hour as minimum wage is essentially nullified by using an extremely antiquated system of ‘per piece’ payment scales.  For some workers it is not low wages, but slavery, that constitutes the ‘unsustainable’ aspect of Florida tomato production, many  are forced to live in cramped box trucks and are physically abused by their ‘employers.’  As recently as 2010, Estabrook finds examples of trafficked humans sold  to new-age slave masters who take advantage of the workers’ desperation, fear, illegal status and inability to speak English.

In Immokalee,  squalor and poverty permeates through the social fabric of immigrant worker communities and further exemplifies the maltreatment of workers.  ‘Trailers’—specifically built and located to house the workers—are often little more than decrepit shacks.  The actual magnitude and breadth of the injustices in the food system are uncertain, due in part to the migrant economy of tomato pickers, many of whom move north in the warmer months to earn extra pay working as seasonal summer labor on other farms.  As a result of this labor migration, many cases of social injustice go unreported, or are delayed beyond the time limits of legal recourse.

Sustainability is the underlying theme of Estabrook’s critique as he traces the journey of the tomato from the research lab, to the field, and to the grocery store. The goal of the seed producers is to create and maintain perfect looking, production line tomatoes, based on the desires and expectations of both farmers and customers.  The growth of these carbon-copy tomatoes since the boom of the Florida tomato industry, has sacrificed one of the most important aspects of food: taste.  Research by university scientists as well as large agribusiness has genetically mapped, spliced, and crossbred tomatoes in an attempt to develop a ‘tastefully’ flawless product.  However, no study has been conducted which addresses and accounts for the gustatory preferences of the market and the evolution of customers’ desires after they compare local with extra-local. The conditioning of being able to purchase ‘fresh’ tomatoes at any time of year has desensitized consumers from any serious questioning of where their tomatoes come from and the journey they take on their way to grocery store shelves.

Estabrook notes there have been no overarching academic comparisons to address metrics that certain communities of consumers use to differentiate between the choice of local and extra-local tomatoes, however, he notes that the culturally patterned culinary usage of tomatoes (e.g. soft salsa tomatoes vs. firm sandwich tomatoes) could be one regionally variable taste based metric. This is to say that for certain communities, soft, strongly acidic tomatoes (often locally grown) could be prefrenced over firm, mildly, industrial tomatoes.

The final chapter of the book, Building a Better Tomato, attempts to give the reader a sense of hope by describing the reconstructive efforts of different areas of the industry to change..  Visits by politicians such as Bernie Sanders [liberal Vermont’s point of pride] to the area, and the lobbying of rights groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, has led to a higher awareness of the issues plaguing the tomato industry as well as a larger movement to resolve these issues.  While before, farmers could hide behind their roles as contractors, exempting them from legal implications concerning the abuses of their crew bosses,  a series of reforms in 2009 and 2010 call for farm owners to be  held accountable for the violence and injustice which takes place in their fields.  Unfortunately, in line with previous attempts by the Bush and Clinton administrations, enforcement of labor laws by the U.S. Labor Department is lax and does little to relieve the social despair and maltreatment of migrant workers.

One way to improve the living and work conditions of workers in the tomato industry is by changing the way that the tomatoes are grown.  For example, one farmer in Florida is attempting to make the organic growth of tomatoes practical and profitable.  By using integrated pest management, crop rotation and ‘natural’ fertilizers, the farmer hopes to minimize the negative effects of tomato farming upon the land and the people. Estabrook finds that the nature of work and quality of life has changed for employees under this new style of farming, which includes a standard hourly wage and free housing for jobs outside of Florida , and that advocates could use this model to ameliorate practices in the state. While harvest and production techniques are lacking these widespread reforms in Floridal, the large issue of affordable and quality housing has been addressed to some extent by Steven Kirk and the Everglades Community Association, with their creation of housing complexes that cater to this omnipresent present lacuna .  These properties, which cost a mere $175.00 per month, add more permanence to the lives of fieldworkers and help to create a stable community for migrants and their families.

Only a few farms in Florida have worked to implement these necessary changes in Florida, especially among those that practice a more intensive, costly and diversified form of organic agriculture, including those that have agreed to comply with worker advocates’ demands.  We can assume that on remaining farms, pay rates and work conditions are largely the same as they were previous to the reforms of 2009 and 2010.  From this perspective, Tomatoland offers us a rather dour outlook on the progressive aspect of workers’ rights and food quality, as changes in the system seem to stem primarily from boycotts of restaurants who continue to purchase these inhumanely produce fruits (e.g. the Campiagn for Fair Food’s demand of a penny increase per pound in the salaries of fieldworkers). Estabrook believes that a systemic change is necessary in order to reshape the financial and social realities of corporations, farmers and employees.  He recognizes the difficulty of realizing such changes when those in power refuse to relinquish the economic benefits of the current corrupt system, namely, the abuse of human rights through modern day slavery.

The reality that we come out of this book with is that no market should exist outside of the human system, ignoring the human cost of current business practices; an industry based upon these underlying unsustainable factors should find significant difficulty in maintaining operations under such deplorable conditions. Unfortunately, Estabrook makes it very clear that big agribusiness doesn’t find the human factor to cause any hardships at all.    Estabrook, in his attempt to find solutions to this problem, focuses entirely on government processes and NGO mitigation and observation.  He fails to recognize the purchasing power of the consumer in demanding a truly ‘better’ tomato. This lacuna in establishing the consumer as a catalyst for change within the system is one that I find to be unforgivable, and one which should be remedied if Estabrook publishes a second edition.

Tomato violence is not unique to Florida, or even to the United States; it is a global problem. My experience as a pesticide applicator in the state of Vermont gave me an inside peak on not only the application process but the level of government control over it.  While the regulation of industry practice in Vermont is superior to that of Florida, we are not immune to issues of over-application.  From an anthropologist’s perspective, Tomatoland offers a realistic view of the tomato industry as a microcosm of modern day vegetable production.  However, Tomatoland lacks references that would allow it to be utilized as a field book to help applied anthropologists in the area gain a better understanding of the material records of these injustices. In this respect the book would have benefited from more interviews with fieldworkers, and focusing more specifically on the illegal migration that has allowed these injustices to continue.  Alas, this is not that kind of book, as Estabrook thrives more upon the desire to illustrate the detrimental nature of tomato production in Florida while using the medium of the migrant worker to help demonstrate the human impact of such a flawed system.

Despite the corporate focus on advances in appearance, quantity, and profit, as Tomatoland aptly notes, the aspect of modern tomato production desired most by consumers is an advancement in taste. However, in United States, a country that boasts equality and freedom and that spends billions of dollars a year on human rights aid, consumers should be embarrassed by the actions of the tomato industry and its treatment of field workers. Many people come to the United States in search of the ‘American Dream,’ opportunity and a better life.  Migrant tomato workers are greeted with disrespect and maltreatment and are forced to live in a state of modern day slavery.   Now aware of the inhumane and unnatural process by which these little red blobs land on my plate, I no longer find them to be all that appetizing. Estabrook’s writing style is intentional, and it appears his hope is for books like this to raise consumer, governmental, and non-governmental agency awareness and actually incite change in the food industry.  Tomatoland is well written, easy to read and highly accessible to people unfamiliar with the negative side of agribusiness.  I highly recommend it, particularly to those socially conscious individuals who find themselves wondering what the true cost is of supplying perfectly round spheres to fill their stomachs.

 

Aziz Fatnassi

Ph.D Student Indiana University Anthropology

 

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