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.