Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook provides a well-researched, whirlwind tour of the tomato in America, focusing on the tomato industry. The book jumps between many topics of varying degrees of import and seriousness, but does so in an engaging and readable way. If you already spend time thinking about worker's rights and farm labor, or have an interest in how factory farms work, then you may already know about the journalistic centerpiece of this work (the ongoing tragedy of the Immokalee farmworkers and incidences of slavery on Florida farms), but wrapped around this investigative core are interesting stories about the science and culture of tomato growing and consumption, and the lack of flavor in supermarket tomatoes.
The big story in Tomatoland
If you aren't familiar with Immokalee, you will be after you read Tomatoland. Immokalee is a community in Florida where many immigrant and migrant workers live, and are exploited by large industrial tomato farms. The book details some heartbreaking cases of birth defects due to pesticide exposure, and documented cases of slave labor (as in chained to the wall) as well as economic slavery.
My tomato buying habits
I am one of the many who buys winter tomatoes from the grocery store, although I always avoid the tasteless, unblemished slicing "tomato" orbs that grocery stores typically stock. I usually buy cherry or grape tomatoes during the winter. This means I get better flavor from my winter tomatoes, but it doesn't mean that I have avoided supporting Florida farmers guilty of human rights abuses and damaging the environment. I was frustrated to read in Tomatoland about the Santa Sweets brand of grape tomatoes in conjunction with a company (Ag-Mart) implicated in the most famous Immokalee case (Ag-Mart admitted no wrongdoing when they settled). I've mindlessly bought Santa Sweets many times.
This summer I have paid special attention to buying Tomatoes grown in my region (New England), and have made more of an effort than usual to get locally-grown farm tomatoes when possible. Of course, locally-grown tomatoes taste better, so it's easy to keep going once you get started. When summer is over, I'll be avoiding Ag-Mart produce as much as I can. Backyard Farms grows tomatoes hydroponically. As Estabrook says, hydroponic tomatoes lack the full flavor of a soil-grown tomato; but, Backyard farms produces tomatoes year round and they are fairly tasty (and not grown in Florida).
The other stories
Tomato plants are native to South America, and were brought back to Europe by Cortés. Estabrook describes the work of Victorian botanists who found and cultivated many species of tomato. A lot of tomato diversity in the wild has been lost, and many farm tomato vines are cultivated for the strength to grow in Florida, rather than for taste. Some diversity is being reintroduced by scientists via boots-on-the-ground plant collection in the wild and old-fashioned hybridization in the lab. The trend towards local and artisinal farming is also having a positive effect on the availability of high-quality tomatoes in some markets, although it isn't helping to produce an affordable tomato.
Estabrook also describes the economics and politics of growing and exporting Florida tomatoes, and the power wielded by the Florida Tomato Committee. Remember UglyRipe tomatoes and how they appeared, then disappeared, then reappeared? That was due to the Florida Tomato Committee.
At 193 pages plus detailed end notes, Tomatoland is a fairly quick read as well as a good starting point if you want to study any of its topics in more depth. Check your local library or bookstore for Tomatoland. Or, buy Tomatoland from Amazon.
Have something to say about Tomatoland? Please comment below. Also, check out these links related to some of the subjects in Tomatoland.
- Barry Estabrook maintains an interesting blog
- The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is dedicated to advancing the interests of poor and migrant farm workers in Florida
- If you are interested in plant diversity and the benefits of classical plant breeding, check out this blog post on Protecting the Food Ark by a friend of mine
- Ag-Mart has been trying to push back against the negative press, but has done little to change the core problems with how they pay and treat farm workers