A Dispatch from ‘Tomatoland’

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On the day after Thanksgiving, 1960, legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow took millions of Americans into the tomato fields of Florida via the landmark CBS documentary “Harvest of Shame.” He began by quoting a farmer who said, “We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them.” And he ended with the idea that an outraged public might press for meaningful laws to protect the migrant workers “who harvest your fruits and vegetables.”

More than half a century later, journalist Barry Estabrook has returned to those fields and reports that things are no better:

In the chilling words of Douglas Molloy, chief assistant United States attorney in Fort Myers, South Florida’s tomato fields are “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Molloy is not just talking about virtual slavery, or near slavery, or slaverylike conditions, but real slavery. In the last fifteen years, Florida law enforcement officials have freed more than one thousand men and women who had been held and forced to work against their will … Workers were “sold” to crew bosses to pay off bogus debts, beaten if they didn’t feel like working or were too sick to work, held in chains, pistol whipped, locked at night into shacks in chain-link enclosures patrolled by armed guards. Escapees who got caught were beaten or worse. Corpses of murdered farmworkers were not an uncommon sight in the rivers and canals of South Florida.

That’s a passage from Estabrook’s new book, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Building on an award-winning article in the late, lamented Gourmet magazine, Estabrook adds some new dimensions to the outrageous, yet stubbornly persistent, story of an industry that touches nearly every one of us living in fast-food nation.

In pursuit of round, smooth tomatoes every day of every year to top our burgers, garnish our tacos, and spoon from our all-you-can-eat salad bars, Florida churns out fruit grown in sandy soil carved from the steamy Everglades. Unfortunately, tomatoes don’t like sandy soil or humid air, so Florida farmers blast their crops with chemical fertilizers and soak them in toxic pesticides. Not surprisingly, these results bear little connection to the luscious summer beauties of yesteryear. Picked when they are still flavorless green balls, Florida’s factory tomatoes are easy to ship and pretty on the produce counter. But they are only red because they have been treated with gas—having never gained much flavor.

“Of all the fruits and vegetables we eat, none suffers at the hand of factory farming more than a tomato grown in the wintertime fields of Florida,” Estabrook writes. While working conditions are much the same as they were in Murrow’s day, the tomatoes being picked have gotten much worse. Compared to tomatoes of the 1960s, they are lower in vitamins, deficient in minerals—yet higher in sodium.

Estabrook recounts the day he noticed small, hard missiles flying off the back of a loaded truck as it raced along a Florida highway ahead of his car. Pulling to the side of the road, he found hundreds of freshly picked tomatoes. Naturally, he began to wonder why we’re eating so much of a fruit that can fall from a truck at 60 mph, bounce along the pavement, and roll to a stop without being damaged. That not a tomato; it’s a tennis ball.

And why do we tolerate a system of appalling labor conditions simply to produce such unappetizing food?

“Tomatoland” told me little I didn’t already know about the plight of Florida’s farmworkers. When I was a young reporter at The Miami Herald in the 1980s, we wrote exposes from Immokalee and Clewiston and other hubs of South Florida agriculture. The generation before us had written those same pieces, and the generation before them, too. Anyone who believes that journalists have great power to should try reading everything that has been written on this sad subject, going back to Ernie Pyle’s 1940 visit, when he observed “pigpens filled with humans” in the “Florida version of ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ ”

But Estabrook bears witness again, and tells the story well. Estabrook gives the history, science and politics of the tomato, all in service of laying the blame for the ruination of a wonderful fruit. He looks through the lens of the fast-spreading movement to draw attention to the sources and quality of our food. In that, he taught me a lot—not just about farmer’s markets and heirloom tomatoes. I learned that even in the most soulless supermarket you can find better-tasting tomatoes grown in appropriate climates. You just have to look in the canned vegetables aisle.

Yes, canned tomatoes are superior to the smooth, red orbs in the produce section. They’re grown in the suitably dry air of California and allowed to ripen before they are picked and processed.

Perhaps you’ve noticed in recent years that agribusiness has become a stock villain of Hollywood thrillers. Instead of terrorists or rogue agents of the CIA, good guys like Liam Neeson in “Unknown” and George Clooney in “Michael Clayton” find themselves battling the evil minions of the food industry. That seemed strange and excessive to me—after all, these are the people who keep us fed.

But “Tomatoland” is a strong reminder that much of this damaged image the farmers and food processors have brought on themselves. If they want to be loved, Estabrook suggests, they need to clean up their age-old problems, and stop callously engineering new ones.