I’m reading Tomatoland, the 2011 book by Barry Estabrook. It is a damning revelation about the fresh market tomato industry in Florida. Check out Estabrook’s blog Politics of the Plate.
I grew up with the three-in-a-row packaged in cellophane variety of tomato in the winter, as that “red ingredient” to put into our iceberg lettuce salads. That says a lot about the 1980s, as my family was also a big gardening family and had local tomato packing house heritage (see my post on Waiting for tomatoes). I knew what a real, ugly, sear your mouth tomato tasted like. I’ve been eating tomato sandwiches and plates of sliced tomato my whole life. (you would never eat a plate of sliced Florida fresh market tomatoes – they shouldn’t even be called tomatoes).
But it’s the heartbreaking human cost that Estabrook really spells out in his book. The unnatural growing medium used in Florida – pure sand – requires 100 different chemicals in order for the tomatoes to grow unblemished. And the people who work those tomato fields, mostly Mexican migrant agricultural workers, are exposed to these pesticides. For pregnant women, it’s led to multiple cases of birth defects. Slavery has not been abolished in the South. People are being held by crew bosses in a cycle of debt, and the workers are beaten if they try to leave. Doesn’t that sound like slavery to you? Estabrook describes a slumping single-wide trailer as home to nine workers, for which they have the privlege of paying $2000 a month to rent. We don’t even pay that for our one bedroom Upper East Side Manhattan apartment.
Sure, there are issues with other big agriculture crops, and the plight of migrant workers is not isolated to working tomatoes in Florida. But is this system worth the winter fresh market tomato, wrung from Florida sands only through tons of pesticides and brutality? Think about the taste of a winter tomato. Is that mealy, pasty, pinkness worth supporting? Or can you wait with me until June?