Barry Estabrook’s ‘Tomatoland,’ an indictment of modern agriculture

June 10, 2011

Lucas Mariano Domingo came to the United States from Guatemala hoping to find a job that would pay him enough to send money home. But he was soon broke and homeless. And so it must have seemed like a lucky break when Cesar Navarrete, leader of a Florida tomato-picking crew, offered him false papers, room, board and a job that, if he did well, could earn him $200 a week.

It quickly became clear, however, that this was a false opportunity. Domingo was lodged with three other men in the back of a box truck with no running water or toilet. Food was scarce. Navarrete charged extortionate fees for just about everything. After a hot day in the fields, Domingo was docked $5 to stand naked in the back yard and wash himself with cold water from a garden hose. He was paid irregularly and in small, arbitrary amounts. Worse, Navarrete warned that Domingo or any other laborer who attempted to leave would be severely beaten. It took Domingo nearly three years to escape — and even longer before members of the Navarrete family were charged with what Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant U.S. attorney in Fort Myers, Fla., described as “slavery, plain and simple.”

In the 21st century, such horror stories should be uncommon. But over the past 15 years, Florida law enforcement officers have freed more than 1,000 men and women who were held against their will and forced to work in the fields. Barry Estabrook, one of the country’s leading writers on food politics, focused the national spotlight on the issue in 2009 when he published a story in Gourmet magazine (an odd but brilliant placement) arguing that anyone who ate a winter tomato inadvertently supported modern slavery.

Food writers, including me, rushed to get in on the story, and food-reform advocates broadened their definition of “sustainability” to include workers’ rights. Since then, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which advocates for Florida tomato pickers, has helped shine a light on the issue of migrant slavery, and has won higher pay for migrant laborers and concessions from the big growers.

But Estabrook was not content to leave the story there. For him, that perfectly round, perfectly red grocery-store tomato came to represent everything that is wrong with industrial agriculture: the alarming use of fertilizers and pesticides; the relentless market pressure on workers and growers; and the laser-like focus on shipping, storage and shelf life, with predictably tasteless results. “Tomatoland” is more than the sad tale of one fruit’s decline from juicy summer treat to bland obligation. It is an indictment of our modern agricultural system.

The book takes readers on a whirlwind tour from Peru, the birthplace of tomatoes, to California research labs, Pennsylvania farms and Estabrook’s Vermont kitchen, where in one scene he tries desperately to inflict damage on a store-bought tomato by dropping it, throwing it, then bowling it across the floor. No dice. (And no surprise, either: Early commercial breeders were instructed to imagine the tomato as a projectile in their quest for fruit that could travel long distances.)

Most of the action, though, takes place in Immokalee (rhymes with broccoli), ground zero of the Florida tomato industry. Ironically, Estabrook explains, the Sunshine State is anything but an ideal place to grow tomatoes. The sandy soil lacks nutrients and must be supplemented with tons of chemical fertilizer. The rarity of frosts provides pests and pathogens a haven, requiring growers to spray tons of chemical pesticides. The humidity encourages blights, spots and mold. But Florida does have one key benefit: proximity to customers in densely populated and very cold East Coast cities.

Estabrook’s exposure of the resulting environmental and human tragedies places “Tomatoland” in the tradition of the best muckraking journalism, from Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” to Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation.” There are plenty of shocking statistics: For instance, in 2006, Florida growers sprayed nearly 8 million pounds of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides on their tomato crops, nearly eight times as much as California growers used for a similar-size crop. But by and large, Estabrook lets people — migrant workers, activists and scientists — tell the story.

In the case of pesticides, there is no tale more heart-wrenching than that of three families whose children were crippled or killed, it was later proved, because of their mothers’ work in the winter tomato fields. All three women worked at a company called Ag-Mart, whose products include the nearly ubiquitous Santa Sweets grape tomato sold in plastic clamshell containers at grocery stores. The label depicts three smiling, dancing tomato kids. The company’s advertising boasts, “Kids love to snack on this nutritious treat.”

Not so the women’s newborn babies, born within seven weeks of one another. Francisca Herrera’s son, Carlitos, was born with no arms and legs. Sostenes Maceda’s son, Jesus, was born with a deformity of the lower jaw that put him at constant risk of choking on his own tongue. Maria Meza gave birth to Jorge, who had one ear, no nose, a cleft palate, one kidney, no anus and no visible sexual organs. It was later determined that Jorge was a girl, and she was renamed Violeta. She lived just three days.

Most instances of pesticide misuse, Estabrook reports, don’t result in charges or fines because workers are afraid to come forward and because of a shameful lack of enforcement. In the case of the deformed babies, agents leveled 88 counts against Ag-Mart, fining the company $111,200. A judge later reduced the fine to $8,400. It took a pro-bono personal-injury lawyer to win one family an undisclosed settlement, enough to sustain the little boy financially for life. Ag-Mart admitted no guilt.

It’s easy to get enraged reading such stories. But Estabrook is careful to maintain his journalistic distance. The tomato growers and regulators, whom most readers will consider the bad guys, get to have their say. (Sadly, this is a rarity in the ever-growing crop of books on food politics, which embrace an you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us sensibility.) But Estabrook also does not allow political spin or misleading facts to stand unchallenged. When Reggie Brown, the executive vice president of the Tomato Growers Exchange, protests to him that his industry complies with labor laws and pays competitive wages, Estabrook follows with an account of a 2008 Senate hearing in which committee members demolished the industry’s claims that workers earn an average of $12 per hour. To do that, one senator points out, workers would have to pick 3,000 tomatoes each hour, nearly one per second.

“Tomatoland” doesn’t offer fixes for the industry’s failures. But it does spotlight the people working to change it. Among them: Lady Moon Farms, an organic Florida grower that pays workers an hourly wage and provides them free housing, and still manages to compete on grocery-store shelves; Barbara Mainster, a teacher who offers free or low-cost child care and education for migrant farmworkers’ children; and John Warner Scott, an old-style plant breeder who developed the Tasti-Lee, a tomato that can keep its flavor even when shipped. Each of them offers a ray of hope for the industry — and for consumers who want a delicious, juicy and guilt-free tomato.

But there is still much work to be done. By the end of “Tomatoland,” a far more obvious solution will present itself to some readers: Head to the back yard and plant a few tomatoes of your own.

Jane Black , a former Washington Post staff writer, is working on a book about a West Virginia town that is trying to create a healthier local food culture.

TOMATOLAND

How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit

By Barry Estabrook

Andrews McMeel. 220 pp. $19.99

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